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Kathleen Murphy column: Talking to Betty a real Minnesota experience

“Hello Kathleen. Jeet?” No Betty. I have not yet eaten.

Kathleen Murphy
Kathleen Murphy

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to visit with an old friend. Not only have I known this friend for a very long time — we first met when I was a mere teenager — she is also quite old. An old friend in all senses of the word.

We’ll call her Betty, both to preserve her privacy and because she just happens to be the same age as the timeless Betty White. Both Bettys, I might add, are national treasures.

Though the more infamous of the two Bettys did play a Minnesota girl on TV, my Betty has lived in northern Minnesota for her entire life and has the accent to prove it.

More formally called Upper Midwestern English, the Minnesota tendency to draw out the “o” vowel was brought to national attention with the release of the 1996 movie “Fargo.” I was living in Florida at the time, thinking I was doing a great job at fitting in, when people began to inform me that I “sounded just like that cop from Fargo.” I had no idea. I still feel I have little in the way of an accent, but most non-locals laugh at me when I say it.

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Betty not only proudly retains her Minnesota accent, she has kept the vernacular. She is so stereotypically Minnesotan, in fact, that a cultural linguist recorded interviews with her about a decade ago, in an effort to preserve and record examples of Old Minnesotan speech.

Old Minnesotan (my term, definitely not a proper name) is facing a decline. In the past few decades, most Minnesotans have moved toward a more standard version of English, devoid of the heavy accent. Minnesota Lite, if you will.

Fortunately, no one told Betty. She still speaks the lingo. As such, our conversation began something like this:

“Hello Kathleen. Jeet?” No Betty. I have not yet eaten.

“Juwanna?” Yes, I would love to eat lunch.

“Okay, I just got grow-shrees, so I have cheese and budder and stuff.” She gestures both me and her son into the kitchen. “Boat-a-yuz come here once.”

If you have lived in Minnesota long enough, that all made perfect sense, though it is possible that you have never seen it in print. “And stuff” is the Minnesotan version of “etcetera” or “and other things,” often tacked on at the end of a list of items. “Come here once” is used in place of “Come here.” I use both phrases regularly, and hear them in normal conversation on a daily basis. Betty, as quick-thinking at 97 as I am in my 40s (quicker, actually), had a lot to say about the subject when I asked her what she thought about Old Minnesotan.

Minnesotans enjoy a friendly conversation, according to Betty. We enjoy it so much, in fact, that we insert words that are not needed in order to fill in what otherwise could be unwelcome silence. “Oh, yah, you know,” is filler for “I agree” or a mumble of assent. “That there” or “this here” is no different than “that” or “there.”

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“As far as that goes” is a commonly heard ending to a sentence, but Betty wasn’t sure what it even meant. “See?” She exclaimed with a triumphant grin. “We just want to fill in empty space.” We also add the filler word “with” to the end of “Do you want to come with?” as well as the already mentioned “once” to the end of “Come here once.” A good Minnesotan, I have been known to draw it out even further by saying “Come here once, why dontja?”

Foolishly thinking I could keep up with Betty, I boldly pointed out that Minnesotans tend to shorten phrases as well. “Did not” drops the middle “d” to become “dint,” and “Is it not?” becomes “idn’t.” How does that fit into her theory?

With an impatient wave of her hand, she dismissed my smart attitude. “We talk too fast. Trip all over our words. I’m telling you, Minnesotans have a lot to say.”

She might just be right. Betty has seen a lot and is a smart cookie. My guess is that most of you know someone who has a lot to say and still says it in Old Minnesotan. Listen carefully the next time you have the opportunity, and enjoy Old Minnesota. Thanks to Betty, I’m going to be listening a little more closely from now on.

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. You can contact her at KMurphyWrites@gmail.com.

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