How to Speak Midwestern
By Edward McClelland
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
I’m a dictionary nerd. In my own collection I have dictionaries covering foreign languages, slang, and technical jargon. Within this subset is what I would classify as “regional colloquialisms.” One of my favorite slang/regionalism dictionaries is How to Talk American: A Guide to Our Native Tongues, by Jim “the Mad Monk” Crotty. Published in 1994 it is wonderfully diverse in its sampling and now hilariously outdated. Crotty, a Harvard grad, focuses a lot of attention on the East Coast, primarily New York City and Boston, with side trips to the South, California, and the Midwest. Unfortunately, the book covers Illinois and Minnesota, but no Wisconsin. On a recent trip to the library I discovered How to Talk Midwestern by Edward McClelland.
The book is divided into several short essays explaining the history and peculiarities of different regions constituting The Midwest. “The Midwest,” like “the middle class,” is a notoriously amorphous category, its definition revealing more about who is defining it than a bona fide concrete description. McClelland divides the Midwest into three distinct linguistic regions. The first is The Inland North. It is comprised of upstate New York, Michigan (sans the U.P.), and southeastern Wisconsin. Midland ambles its way from Pennsylvania through Ohio, Illinois (minus the Chicago and Gary areas), through Iowa, Missouri, and down to Oklahoma. North Central involves central and northern Wisconsin, the U.P., Minnesota, and the Dakotas.
It is a strange amalgamation, since one can hardly describe upstate New York as “Midwestern,” although I’ve seen the term encompass everything from the Mountain States to Texas. Protip: “Flyover states” and “Midwestern” aren’t synonymous with each other.
McClelland came up with his classification based on the ways different cohorts of immigrants migrated. He also focused on white ethnic speech. As he explains, “Blacks did not settle in Midwestern cities in large numbers until World War I, when they were recruited to address the sudden shortage of workers in munitions industries. Once they arrived, they were isolated geographically by restrictive covenants, socially by taboos against intermarriage, and economically by relegation to the dirtiest, lowest-paying jobs, preventing social or professional interaction with whites.”
McClelland asserts that the Great Northern Cities Vowel Shift mirrored the rise and fall of the industrial Midwest. “Regional accents aren’t just more prevalent among whites, they’re more prevalent among certain classes of whites.” He goes on to tell how at a certain point in history, ethnic whites could graduate high school, go straight to the factory, and then worship in the same churches as their neighborhood friends. The factory, the bar, and the church became places of ethnic male camaraderie. Women had to temper their accents because they had to interact with teachers, nurses, and other members of the professional classes when taking care of their families. The ethnic accents soon faded with the GI Bill and de-industrialization.
In its own way, How to Speak Midwestern offers valuable insight into the forces roiling around the dumpster fire of the 2016 presidential election. The fading away of white ethnic regional accents in the Midwest is related to the drastic socioeconomic changes rocking our nation for the last half century. The incompetent haircut in the White House simply knew how to channel the anger and impotence filling the Rust Belt. McClelland also offers prescient analysis without all the pearl-clutching and smug obliviousness we come to expect from the dingbat punditocracy. To find worthwhile answers to pressing socioeconomic issues, pick up a book on regional colloquialisms and not a throwaway current affairs tome scribbled by some Beltway idiot.
Beyond the history lesson, McClelland peppers the book with great factoids. I never knew about the sports connection between Chicago and St. Louis. He also explains how immigration, geography, and the steel industry created one of the most fascinating regional accents in Pittsburgh.
I rated this book a little lower than my own personal rating, mainly because it leans towards the technical when it comes to linguistics. It is highly informative, but a little too specialized to flat-out recommend it to a general audience.
My only real critique is for the book to have a brief glossary of linguistic terms and an index. Otherwise, this comes highly recommended, especially to that eccentric subset of bibliophiles who collect slang dictionaries.
Out of 10/8.5
Who says the Midwest has no accent? Here’s three of them:
Ya got yer Bill Swerski’s Super Fans from Chicago:
And some Minnesota nice from Fargo, doncha know?
And last but not least, a song from da U.P.:
But wait, there’s more! The Wisconsin dialect as practiced by Art Kumbalek: