Hailing from the Galápagos of American speech, i.e., Pittsburgh, where cultural and geographic isolation allowed such mutations as yins and redd up to flourish, I enjoy hearing variety in the way people talk.
Even in the relative homogeneity of a Midwestern newsroom, subtle differences in accents emanate from the Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota natives who work here — not to mention the novelty delivered by a few East Coast outliers.
“An important element of Midwestern identity is believing you don’t have an accent — that you speak a neutral brand of standardized English from which all other Americans deviate,” writes Edward McClelland in “How to Speak Midwestern,” one of two complementary new books about how Americans talk.
Of course that isn’t true. In fact, McClelland makes a good case for understanding Wisconsin as rich in accents and microregional differences.
Josh Katz’s visually appealing “Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk” turns more than 350,000 responses to an online dialect quiz into a beautiful book of informative maps. For example, the carbonated beverage I drank as a boy was called pop in Pittsburgh but is soda in Milwaukee, and might be called coke in Alabama, even if it wasn’t a cola.
While most of America calls the thing we drink from at school either a water fountain or a drinking fountain, Katz’s map highlights eastern Wisconsin (and, inexplicably, Rhode Island) as home to people who call it a bubbler. Although here I must demur a bit. It has been a long time since I heard someone here refer to a bubbler in an unself-conscious way, without humorous or locally ironic intent. Language, as both books point out, is always changing, just like the world around us. The first thing I notice on any college campus I visit is the prevalence of stations for filling personal water bottles where simple bubblers once stood.
Katz mines his data to create tip sheets for different regions, including “How to Pretend You’re From Wisconsin,” a disappointing little essay in an otherwise wonderful book. The largest two of its four paragraphs are devoted to a discussion of cheesehead, a former insult repurposed as marketing icon.
Perhaps this essay suffers because our state is far from monolithic in speech patterns. “Wisconsin is the linguistic crossroads of the Midwest, the only state in which Inland North, Midland and North Central are spoken,” McClelland writes. He turns to the Netflix series “Making a Murderer” for an example: The judge and prosecutors speak with urbanized Inland North accents, while “the rural Averys are pure North Central, with ‘deys,’ ‘dats,’ ‘ya knows’ and drawn-out monophthongal ‘o’s.”
Regional accents, McClelland argues, are strongest today among “whites who have never left their hometowns or graduated from college, and who hold jobs that require little contact with people outside the region: police officers, firefighters, tradespeople, retail clerks, truck drivers, assembly-line workers, hairstylists. (The TV show ‘Cops’ is great for accents.)”
As already evidenced, McClelland leavens his writing with pop-culture references (including Fred Rogers as the archetypal speaker of Midland dialect) and touches of humor. He’s also not above moments of disapproval, such as his disdain for the increasing popularity of “you guys” as a form of second-person plural for people of any and all genders. (Yes, I plead guilty of having addressed mixed-gender, even all-female groups of people as “you guys.”) He’d like to see youse, y’all and, I suspect, even Pittsburgh’s yins reclaim some of the ground they have lost to the awkward “you guys.”
McClelland devotes half of his book to glossaries of words peculiar to individual states and cities in the Midwest. The eight-plus pages of Wisconsin glossary add up to a goofy assemblage of local color, culture and usage. I would have preferred more discussion of true linguistic marvels such as “Ya Hey Dere!” and “Stallis” (short for West Allis), and less attention paid to sports and marketing mascots and icons.