Do You Speak Michiganese?

MICHI-SPEAK: There’s nothing really ‘neutral’ about the way Michiganders talk, and our accents are getting even more pronounced, experts say


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UPDATE: Hear Mark Kurlyandchik discuss the Michigan accent on The Craig Fahle Show.

If you’ve watched the network news or listened to actors speak in interviews, you know that media types are trained to mimic a Midwestern accent. You might also know that Michiganders have a so-called neutral accent, and speak something known as Standard American English. If you claim to know these things, then it may come as a surprise to learn that not everything you hear is true.

Research by sociolinguist Dennis Preston has found that Michiganders believe they’re “blessed” with correct speech, and rate their speech as more pleasant than even their Midwestern neighbors. “It is not uncommon to find Michiganders who will claim that the speech of national broadcasters is modeled on their dialect,” Matthew J. Gordon writes in American Voices. “Even a cursory comparison of the speech of the network news anchors with that of the local news anchors in Detroit will reveal the fallacy of such claims.”

For Farmington Hills native Jeff Hastedt, it took a move to New Jersey to realize that he spoke with an accent. “Everybody assumed I was from Canada,” the Specs Howard grad and radio personality says. “I knew that we probably had some type of an accent, but I didn’t realize how intense it was until I left and came back and started listening to some of my family members.

 “In radio, you’re trained to pronounce certain words properly,” not to emulate any type of Midwestern accent, he says. “That was thrown in by people from the Midwest or Michigan.”

But Hastedt didn’t try to rein in his propensity for turning t’s into d’s, or making business names possessive, as in Meijer’s and Kmart’s. “I think I was so damn proud of [my accent],” he says. “You know how proud Michigan people are.”

Sari Zalesin, a voice-over coach at the Michigan Actor’s Studio, has a different view. “They do always look for Midwestern talent when they’re hiring [for radio] across the country,” she says. “It’s a very neutral accent across the United States, I think, maybe because so many people from the Midwest have spread out to a lot of places.”

But being in the geographic middle ground doesn’t necessarily mean neutrality. “Michiganders have an accent because everyone has an accent,” Sarah Thomason, a University of Michigan linguistics professor, says (via e-mail). “Particular regional accents arise because you talk to more people from your own region than to people from elsewhere.”

That accent might be getting more pronounced, thanks to a shift in vowel pronunciation that linguists call the Northern Cities Shift (NCS). This shift causes the word “caught” to sound more like “cot.” And because vowels are part of a system, it forces pronunciations of all related vowels to move down the line; “cot” becomes something closer to “cat,” and so on.

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