Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Do You Speak Michigan?

While there's no denying that I pronounce pillow like pellow, and milk like melk, and get pretty nasally when I'm excited, I always thought the average person in the lower peninsula of Michigan was distinguished by having close to no accent or dialect at all. It seems that, in general, that used to be the case, but not anymore. At a time when most people believe American English is being standardized, the northern Midwest is diverging in a big way.

In a fascinating article, Rob Mifsud of Slate reports:

But American linguistic diversity as a whole isn’t dying—it’s thriving. Despite our gut-level hunch about the direction of the language; despite the fact that 70-cent, three-minute, off-peak, coast-to-coast long-distance calls that cost four inflation-adjusted dollars in 1970 are now free; despite cheap travel, YouTube, and the globalization of film and television, American dialects are actually diverging.

There are multiple examples of such divergence. But none is as dramatic, as baffling to linguists, and as mysteriously under the collective radar as what’s happening in the cities that ring the Great Lakes. From Syracuse, N.Y., in the east to Milwaukee in the west, 34 million Americans are revolutionizing the sound of English. Linguists first noted aspects of the change in the late 1960s. In 1972, three linguists, led by William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania, christened the phenomenon the Northern Cities Vowel Shift or, more simply, the Northern Cities Shift (NCS). What they observed may be the most important change in English pronunciation in centuries.
And studies show we don't even know we talk differently. Mifsud explains:
...most American dialect regions are oblivious to their quirks, but NCS speakers show a particularly striking lack of self-awareness. In one experiment, shifters were asked to write down a series of words, some affected by the NCS, some not, but all dictated by someone with an NCS accent. The expectation is obvious: Shifters should ace this test. But, amazingly, NCS speakers frequently did not understand their own speech. When they hear the word cat in isolation, for example, they seem to flip a mental coin to decide whether the speaker is talking about a common pet or a folding bed. 
In a separate experiment, Nancy Niedzielski, an associate professor of linguistics at Rice University, told 50 NCS speakers that she was going to play a recording of a speaker from Michigan saying the word B-A-G, which she spelled out for them. She then asked the test subjects to identify whether the signal they heard sounded like byag (the NCS pronunciation),bag (the “standard” pronunciation), or baahg (a vaguely British pronunciation). Not one of the 50 subjects said that they heard the NCS pronunciation. “There’s just an incredible deafness to the local pronunciation,” Preston says—adding that the reason, in his opinion, is clear. “They believe that they are standard, normal, ordinary speakers, and when they’re confronted with evidence to the contrary, they reject it. They reject it in their daily lives, and they reject it even experimentally. They don’t even understand themselves.”

And like many aspects of life in Michigan, there's a racial divide.
One boundary the NCS rarely crosses: race. While a linguistic segregation of black and white is typical in American dialects, “it’s especially true of the NCS,” according to Dinkin. “There are much bigger differences between white and black speakers in the NCS region,” he says, “than in, for example, the South.”
Of course, there was a time when a lot of folks in Flint talked a little like this...

It's really worth reading the entire Slate article here.

1 comment:

  1. After we moved to Indiana, some of our new "southern Indiana" friends occasionally commented on our "norhtern accents". One particularly good friend swears my Davison MI born and raised wife sounds exactly like Frances McDormand in Fargo. This I cannot understand.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at