A recent early morning Gawker session led me to unearth the greatest Youtube rant of all time and subsequently spurred the birth of my new blog segment, Accent of the Week. Angela, or Az4angela, is a Youtuber from the Green Bay area of Wisconsin with one serious affinity for candles. I was not only enthralled by her story of customer service in its darkest hour, but also by her clear, crisp and classic Wisconsin accent.
If you’re an English-language learner who’s fascinated by American consumerism and way of life, I would actually recommend this as a great video to watch because (a) Angela speaks slowly and articulately, even despite her foul mood (guess she should really buy buying more of those aromatherapy candles), (b) because she speaks with the epitome of an accent of a large region of the United States, and (c) because the problem that befell her is so typical to our greater culture and national psyche of me me me and buy buy buy.
But really, I invite anyone to watch this ridiculous rant from a apple-cheeked woman named Angela on on what should have been a simple quest for friggin’ Winter Candy Apple and and Gingerbread scented candles.
BUT BE WARNED!: “If you don’t like swearing or angry people from Wisconsin, then turn your mother-effing camera off NOW.”
Take note of her pronunciation of ounce, coupon, so, know, bag, and Wisconsin.
So now that you’ve met, understood and totally empathized with our Midwestern pal Ang, let’s get down to business. What’s a Wisconsin accent, where’s Wisconsin, who on earth even talks like this and why?
The Midwest is a region of 12 states in the north central United States: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. People in New York call these “flyover states”. It’s not very nice. I know plenty of people who have driven through. D’oh! But really, these states make up the heartland of our great nation, so let’s show them some love!
Here’s Wisconsin in red below (but it’s historically a swing state!)
Many of these Midwestern states, including Wisconsin, are highly rural and farming heavy – Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas immediately conjure up images of cornfields on cornfields on cornfields, and Wisconsin, aka “The Dairy State”, produces so much dairy that the EU is threatening to make Wisconsin cheesemakers come up with new names for cheeses because we’re beating them Europeans at their own game! Fine, you try coming up with a new name for a Big Mac and then we’ll talk. Here’s what I know about Wisconsin off the top of my head:
- Capital is Lansing.
- It’s in between Michigan and Minnesota.
- The Green Bay Packers are the NFL team there.
- It’s where the Ingalls family left to go settle the frontier in The Little House on the Prairie series.
- It’s cold a lot of the time.
- Miluakee is a large city where Kristen Wiig lives in Wedding Crashers and feels guilty that she doesn’t live in Chicago, and Madison is home to the University of Wisconsin where lots of north-easterners go to party for four years.
Who comes from Wisconsin?
This list is surprising at times, mostly because the actors you’ll recognize below don’t speak with a Wisconsin accent. We can chalk that up to theater training.
**If you’re interested in the real nitty gritty linguistic stuff, read on! Otherwise just scroll down for some video moments of the greatest Midwestern accents of all time (yes, I included Fargo, you betcha!).**
A lot of people lump together the Midwest accent as one big thing, but there are some big differences from state to state. We’re going to concentrate on the Wisconsin accent now, which is similar to the accents spoken in Minnesota, Michigan, and the Dakotas in the Upper Midwest. Many linguists have traced the roots of this particular accent to the Scandinavian languages of the large populations of Norwegians and Swedes (as well as Germans and Danes) who came over to American and settled the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Basically, they made it all the way across the ocean, docked on the East Coast, looked around, asked, “Where is it even colder than it is back home?”, and then went there and settled the land, no questions asked.
Like in Swedish and Norwegian, the vowel sounds in Midwestern English are tighter and pronounced like monopthongs, instead of diphthongs as in General American English. For example, the diphthong /aʊ/ is weakened to /oʊ/ in certain words, like in about, which is one of those words Americans like to ask Canadians (northernly neighbor of the Upper Midwest!) to say so we can giggle and say, “Omg you’re so Canadian.”
If you take an American dialectology class, you’re bound to learn about the Northern Cities Vowel shift and the caught/cot merger, both of which are going on now so act fast! It involves, obviously, the shifting in the articulation of vowels in the mouth. It applies to a large area of the country, from Upstate New York all the way down, up and around into Minnesota, and concerns the vowels found in the following six words: caught, cot, cat, bit, bet, and but.
This phenomenon can be heard in the Wisconsin accent /æ/ before voiced velars (/ɡ/ and /ŋ/), with an up-glide rather than an in-glide, so that the vowel in bag /bæg/ sounds close to the vowel in beg [ɛ] or the vowel in the first syllable of bagel [eɪ]. The two are often merged. Therefore, in this dialect, plague and vague often rhyme with bag, crag, flag, lag, sag, tag, etc. You definitely hear this in Angela’s speech. This sound shift also applies to longer words, like magazine, dragon, and agriculture. The words roof and root may be variously pronounced with either /ʊ/ or /u/; like with the vowels of foot or boot. (Wikipedia)
Interestingly, the expression “Want to come with?” actually has it’s origins in the Midwest because of the Germanic language influence. In Swedish, Norwegian, German or Dutch, it’s perfectly legitimate to say, for example, “Kom med” (come with). This has been translated word-for-word into English, and I’d go out on a limb and say that lots of Americans outside of the Midwest would use this in casual conversation.
Alright, enough academic talk – Here are some famous instances of Midwesterners talking. Let’s throw it back to the year 2001 to the first ever season of Survivor when female truck driver and Wisconsinite Susan Hawk gave an epic speech, SNAKES AND RATS, in the season’s final episode. Listen to her tight vowels and she digs into Richard and Kelly and lets them both seriously have it.
Here’s everyone’s favorite example of a Midwestern (read: Minnesota accent) from Fargo:
And another Minnesota accent from a lesser known movie called Drop Dead Gorgeous:
To end, the Center for the Study of Midwestern Culture at the University of Wisconsin writes that three of their students are doing research in towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin with “heritage speakers of Norwegian”, ie, up to fourth generation Americans but who learned Norwegian as their mother tongue! The students have “examined how newspapers and local churches worked in the maintenance of Norwegian in the Midwest, arguing that the use of Norwegian within various social domains, and high concentrations of Norwegians in rural areas were major factors contributing to the long life of Norwegian as a heritage language” and “focused on how English elements — words and longer units — are incorporated into Norwegian conversation…on how heritage speakers maintain Norwegian phonological contrasts not present in English (like geminate or ‘long’ consonants) but show apparent influence from Norwegian on the phonetics of their English.” And just to add, German is actually the second most spoken language in the neighboring state of North Dakota, where almost half of the population claims German descent.
America, monolingual? Never! I’ll leave y’all with a the big question: Can a Wisconsin accent ever be…sexy?