Oh yah, that’s Yooper talk

Today the University of Wisconsin Press publishes Yooper Talk: Dialect as Identity in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Author Kathryn Remlinger explores features of this unique North American dialect while examining why dialects persist even in a globalized age.

The remote and isolated location of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, combined with contact among English and other languages, have shaped Yooper talk over the past 150 years and have helped it remain distinct from other varieties of American English. It is shaped by tourism, economics, the sociolinguistic history of the Upper Peninsula, research on regional varieties, awareness about language variation, and how speakers claim identity with language.

Figure 1: Bjorklund-Ollila Strawberry Harvest at Heinola Finnish Immigrant Agricultural Community near Oskar Bay in Houghton County ca1920. Used by permission from Finlandia University’s Finnish American Historical Archives Collections

If there is a definitive Yooper dialect, why don’t all Yoopers sound the same?

Figure 2: Map of Michigan and Research Area, University of Wisconsin Press

Although there is a recognizable way of speaking American English in the Upper Peninsula, there is not just one standard UP dialect. There are many ways of speaking in the UP due to diverse factors including socioeconomic class, social relationships and activities, gender, age, first language, education, and occupation. Furthermore, many of the stereotypical features of “Yooper” are found throughout the Upper Midwest, including northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, and even in other parts of the United States and Canada, including Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Ohio, and southern Ontario. Residents, natives, tourists, and linguists have created the perception that there is one specific way of speaking in the Upper Peninsula. Typically this idea is based on a few limited linguistic features, but, if we listen to our neighbors, friends, and relatives who live in the UP, we’ll hear a cacophony of voices, each one claiming its place on the dialect map.

Figure 3: Welcome to Yooperland sign at Da Yoopers Tourist Trap, Ishpeming, photo by Kathryn Remlinger

But what about TV, radio, and other media? Aren’t they wiping out regional dialects?

Although we may learn new words and expressions from various media, media typically does not affect the ways we use language beyond temporarily adding to our vocabulary. Language variation and change can only happen through face-to-face interaction, while TV, radio, the Web, and other media lack that connection. However, regional dialects are far from static.

 

Figure 4: Say ya to da up, eh! bumper sticker, created by Jack Bowers, photo by Kathryn Remlinger

But why do these distinct varieties still exist with all the moving around that people do?

In part, distinctions exist because of the isolation and remoteness of certain areas. The Upper Peninsula is a good example of this, as its location limits the amount of contact speakers have with others. Thus we can hear certain features of the local dialect persisting, such as ya, da, eh, and the pronunciation of sauna as “sow-na.”

It’s not just geographic boundaries that influence local speech; cultural differences affect language variation, too. Our worldview is reflected in the language we use and how we use it. However, this claim comes with a cautionary note: language, particularly vocabulary, can reflect the beliefs and worldview of a group of people, and learning other languages is one way in which people develop different perspectives on the world. Yet, language does not determine our worldview, nor does culture determine the structure and use of our language. They are merely reflections of each other. For example, it’s commonly believed that people living in snowy regions have more words for snow than do speakers in tropical climates. While this might be true given the individual cultures and a community’s everyday practices, the number of words depends on how those words are put together and what counts as a “word.” Also, just because a language has no word for snow, this does not mean that its speakers can’t understand what snow is or create a word in their language for it.

Just because a language has no word for snow, this does not mean that its speakers can’t understand what snow is. Click To Tweet

Figure 5: Sauna insurance sign, photo by Kathryn Remlinger

Another factor that affects the longevity of dialects are the meanings and values we attach to them. For example, we often tend to think of someone who speaks with a regional accent as more honest, loyal, and kind. This positive perception is linked to the idea that the “best” speakers of a dialect are typically seen as the most “authentic” locals. Tied to this sense of authenticity is the most compelling reason for the maintenance of dialect differences: identity. Our language is one of the most obvious ways in which we mark who we are, where we’re from, and where we’ve been. This includes not only our region but also our social class, gender, age, ethnicity, education, and other ways in which we categorize ourselves culturally and socially. As the linguistic landscape shrinks through our online and geographic interconnectedness, language remains our badge of identity.

The most compelling reason for the maintenance of dialect differences is identity. Click To Tweet

Kathryn A. Remlinger is a professor of English: Linguistics at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan.

6 comments

  1. Does the good professor (or the author of this piece) REALLY believe “sow-na” is a regionalism, and not the true pronunciation of “sau-na?” Did the professor really attend MTU, and not discover that the Finnish people, who invented sow-nas, pronounce the word “sow-na,” as do the Finnish in Finland?

    1. I’ve been told that “saw-na” is a Swedish invention, a steam bath, and one hits oneself with sticks in the process, explained by a elite east coast college graduate. He was most surprised to find out he was wrong on all 3 aspects. I’ve even had people tell me that the correct pronunciation is “saw-na” not “sauna.” Thanks for the post, Tom!

  2. Yes, it’s true that many (but not all) Yoopers pronounce sauna as “sow-na” (the Finnish way), whereas most Americans do not. That connection to Finnish heritage and language is one part of what makes the Yooper dialect distinctive.  Similarly, in Wisconsin, a brat is a German sausage, not an annoying child.

  3. “These words are what are called shibboleths”….Kate I found this very interesting and gained a little knowledge and understanding along the way….brilliant!

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