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.
“My poor friend from Missouri, who lived in East Lansing for a while, was offered cod fish two or three times when he requested catfish at a restaurant,” Preston says. Now a professor at Oklahoma State University, the Louisville native has done extensive research on the NCS. He explains that, while the seeds of the NCS were sown long ago, it began to spread sometime in the middle of the last century and has become strongly rooted in urban areas along the Rust Belt: Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit. As non-native English speakers migrated out of New York City along the Erie Canal, they carried the NCS with them.
And it is the non-native English speakers — particular to Michigan were Germans, Scandinavians, and Irish — who are believed to be the root cause, thanks to the instability of the English vowel system and its difficulty for those learning it as a second language. “It’s pretty complicated,” Preston says. “Especially the noises that are down around the words ‘caught,’ ‘cut,’ and ‘cot.’ There’s ‘au,’ ‘uh,’ and ‘ah.’ Those vowels are really close to one another. Hardly any other language has three enormously crowded vowels like these.”
Another characteristic of the NCS is a nasality expressed — perhaps best — in the speech of Michigan’s newly minted governor. “Rick Snyder has an intense Michigan accent,” Hastedt says. Pay attention the next time Gov. Snyder talks about his plan for Michigan’s jahb recovery. He might as well be talking through his nose.
We’re a nasal bunch, and it’s not a condition remedied by drug-store decongestant.
“I found that the longer I am [away] from home, the less nasally and more balanced my accent gets,” says Eric Weaver, a Grand Rapids native now living in Seattle. “But if I’m around my family, who have very strong Western Michigan accents, it comes out more.”
After spending the first 30 years of his life here, Weaver continued his marketing career on the West Coast, where comments on his accent started to get under his skin. “I remember people asking me if I was from Wisconsin,” he says. “Or laughing when I said ‘melk’ instead of ‘milk’.”
The realization that he spoke with an accent prompted Weaver to create the “Michigan Accent Pronunciation Guide” more than 15 years ago. What started as a single-page joke has developed into a serious labor of love, containing more than 100 unique pronunciations and colloquialisms on his Michigan-centric website, michigannative.com.
Years of feedback from others and a view from the outside have given Weaver some perspective. “Michiganders talk very quickly, and I joke it’s because it’s cold outside,” he says. Because of that, “We crunch some words together. Like ‘crayons’ is ‘cranz,’ or ‘garage’ is ‘graage’.” His website cites more examples.
“The whole guide is meant to be totally tongue-in-cheek,” Weaver says. Still, he’s received plenty of hate mail because of disagreements over a particular pronunciation or colloquialism listed in the guide.
Issues arise, Preston says, because of biases. “The problem is that people who speak certain regional varieties are prejudiced against others,” he adds. “What’s one person’s ‘pronounced drawl’ probably means something closer to the stereotype that one has for the least-educated speakers of one region.”
Gordon’s American Voices piece elaborates on that point. “One thing about linguistic stereotypes is certain: They have less to do with the actual speech of a region than with popular perceptions of the region’s people,” he writes. “As long as Midwesterners are viewed as average, boring, or otherwise nondescript, their speech will be seen through the same prism.”
“It’s certainly the case that, due to lack of integration, African-American English is still greatly distinct from European-American English.”
As much as we all like to point a finger at the way others speak, “There’s no such thing as a Standard American English accent,” says Wil Rankinen, a former student of Preston’s and Ph.D. student at Indiana University, Bloomington, whose research has focused on Yooper dialect.
The closest thing to an American acrolect — the most prestigious dialect — has nothing to do with the Midwest, or any other region, for that matter. Instead, it’s “what you would call the careful speech of the upper-middle class,” Preston says. But even that characterization is considered a stretch by some. “People steadfastly believe that a homogenous, standardized, one-size-fits-all language is not only desirable, it is truly a possibility,” writes Rosina Lippi-Green in the book English With an Accent. “This language does not exist in fact, but it certainly does exist as an ideal in the minds of the speakers.”
With so many factors affecting pronunciation, it seems that a “standard accent” is impossible. Region, age, gender, ethnicity, and social class all have been found to affect speech. In particular, the factor of social class speaks to the prevalence of discrimination based on dialect. “It’s fair to say that the more informal you are, and the less high-status you are, the more difference there is” in dialect across regions, Preston says. Interestingly enough, the NCS has been found to be more evident among younger, European-American, upper working-class or lower middle-class, females. Research to explain this phenomenon is ongoing.
And because of all the factors involved, dialects are becoming more distinct, at least in their accents, Preston says. A note here: Accent is merely a part of a dialect, which — in addition to pronunciation — takes grammar and colloquialisms into account. The distinction is noticeable even across Michigan.
“There’s a huge Hispanic community in Michigan,” Preston says. “They’re not going to do the NCS, it appears, just like Anglo-Michiganders do it.
“When we talk about Michigan speech, we talk about downtown or European-American people, but we have a huge Hispanic population and African-American population. … It’s certainly the case that, due to lack of integration, African-American English is still greatly distinct from European-American English.”
But the NCS is still spreading into rural areas of the state and has not reached beyond a certain point of even the Lower Peninsula, Rankinen says. “In terms of the possible effect [the NCS] may have on the Upper Peninsula, it’s pretty slim right now.” Because of different migration patterns, with Finnish being the dominant heritage group, the Upper Peninsula has more in common with a Canadian accent than the NCS. Rankinen, a Marquette native and third-generation Finn, still sometimes pronounces “the” as “duh”, and drops prepositions. “We will actually say, ‘Let’s go Wal-Mart,’ ” he admits.
But even with the continued fragmentation of the language (an opposite vowel shift to the NCS is simultaneously occurring in the southern United States), Preston says he doubts American English will ever split in two. “We’re a country, and countries like to have languages,” he says.
He also suggests that the Internet and other mass media won’t have the impact that’s generally assumed. “People don’t learn language from the Internet, or movies, or TV,” he says. “Those have to do with hip vocabulary or slang, but the lasting effect isn’t as great.” Dialect, he says, has more to do with one’s social group.
“Every generation says that language is going to hell in a basket,” Preston says, adding, “For some odd reason, despite this trip to hell, the language survives.”