Speak Up Defense of Midwest Dialects, Straight from the `Heartland'

Article excerpt

ALL RIGHT CLASS, time for a quick quiz.

Say aloud, using your usual pronunciation, the last name of the first president of the United States.

If, like many Midwesterners, you said "Warshington" instead of employing the r-less pronunciation you'll find in the dictionary, odds are you've taken a fair amount of ribbing over the years from friends and acquaintances accusing you of "talking funny."

Well, thanks to a new book edited by a professor of English at Western Illinois University in Macomb, you now have a comeback for those linguistic critics.

You're not talking funny, you're talking the North Midland dialect of the English language - a perfectly respectable dialect that traces its history to Scotland and Ireland.

In "Heartland English: Variation and Transition in the American Midwest," Timothy Frazer and his 15 co-contributors debunk the notion that Midwesterners have a uniform, neutral "voice from nowhere" way of speaking that is devoid of dialects.

"It's ridiculous to talk of a single Midwestern dialect," Frazer said in a recent telephone interview.

Frazer described a number of distinct dialects to be found scattered throughout the Midwestern states from Ohio to Kansas and the Dakotas, and from the Canadian border to the Ohio River and Oklahoma.

Frazer said there are three basic regional dialects: Inland Northern, Upland Southern and North Midland. Inland Northern, he said, is the dialect sometimes referred to as "general American" and is the model of English found in dictionaries and pronunciation guides.

"Inland Northern is the dialect spoken by the settlers who came to the southern Great Lakes region from New England and New York state," Frazer said. "It's the accent people use who don't think they have an accent. It's the voice of directory assistance."

Inland Northern became the "standard" English dialect in this country, he said, because the people who spoke it more or less forced it on the rest of us by controlling the educational system.

"The Inland Northerners were religious zealots and rather arrogant," Frazer said. "They founded the colleges and got the public school systems going. They also accumulated a lot of capital and were drawn to the cities. (Speakers of other dialects) were more likely to be subsistence farmers, while the Inland Northerners were the bankers."

Inland Northern also used to be the dialect universally used by radio and TV announcers, Frazer said, but that seems to be changing as other dialects make inroads into the media.

Like Inland Northern, Frazer said, the two other basic regional dialects in the Midwest reflect the ancestry and settlement patterns of early immigrants.

"Upland Southern is not the same as the dialect of the Deep South," he said. "It's similar to Appalachian, and comes from Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, western Virginia and Carolina.

"It's found in the southern half of Illinois in a checkerboard arrangement, predominantly in the river valleys, less on the prairies. …