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Ya sure: Regional dialects persist across Upper Midwest

Jim Davis doesn't think he has a "North Dakota" accent.

"Most people in North Dakota don't believe we have an accent," Davis said. "I'm sure we do to another part of the country."

The Upper Midwest regional accent was famously launched to national consciousness by the over-the-top Hollywood rendition featured in the movie "Fargo." Davis, who works in the North Dakota State Archives, said that he doesn't think the North Dakota dialect is distinct from most of the Midwest.

"We grew up with most of the major broadcast anchors," Davis said. "Walter Cronkite, Brokaw, Eric Sevareid, a lot of those people were from the Midwest. So that's what we used to hear on the TV all the time. That's how people always talked, we figured."

According to Paul Tilleson, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota who has done research on the Upper Midwest dialect, the stereotypical "Minnesota" accent parodied in "Fargo" can also be found in North Dakota, Wisconsin—particularly western Wisconsin—northern Iowa and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is more prevalent in eastern North Dakota, tapering off toward the west.

Davis, like many North Dakotans, assumed the regional pattern of speech had roots in the Norwegian and German heritage of most areas of the state, and that if there is an "accent," it's dying.

"It's disappearing now somewhat because it was second-generation Norwegians and second-generation Germans and now that you're in the third or fourth generations, the more European accent is changing," Davis said.

However, Tilleson said this was not the case. According to him, linguists don't see regional accents diminishing in the U.S. In fact, Tilleson even claims that at this point, the Upper Midwest accent is only loosely tied to the region's history of Scandinavian and Germanic immigration.

"A lot of dialectal variation is just due to chance," Tilleson said. "Dialects are just varieties of language. Kids acquire, every generation, sub-generation or whatever, they acquire the language a little bit differently than the previous generation."

Due to the rise of media, people across the world can hear a variety of accents every day, especially the media-friendly "standard" American accent. Due to this interconnectedness, many people have the perception that regional accents are on the decline and that as a nation, we are headed toward dialectical sameness. But according to Tilleson, media has little effect on children's' language acquirement.

"We use language—the way we use it—we're using it with our peers, we're using it with close people, and the way we acquired it is just in sort of an immediate environment, so the effect of media is negligible," Tilleson said. "You could put an infant in front of a television and they're not going to acquire any language from it. It's just a box making noise."

Tilleson said one possible change that might be happening in the youth of North Dakota is what is known as "the Northern City Vowel Shift" or the "Great Lakes Vowel Shift." It reportedly began in cities bordering the Great Lakes and moved west. Researchers are even starting to see this phenomenon in urban areas of Minnesota.

Tilleson described various changes in vowel pronunciation as characteristic of this great "vowel shift." The "ah" sound in a word like "Wisconsin" becomes more fronted, almost as if speakers are adding a "y" in front. The "a" sound in a word like "cabin" sounds more akin to the vowels in "yeah." The "uh" in a word like "buses" transforms the word into "bosses."

Whether or not the urban areas of North Dakota will begin to shift their vowels remains to be seen. But, like most dialectal changes, it will be left to fate and remain a tad bit inexplicable.

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