Review: Embracing Regional Dialects in Ted McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern

htsmTed McClelland will be doing a reading and signing for the launch of How to Speak Midwestern at the Book Cellar (4736 N. Lincoln) at 7pm tonight, Thursday, December 1.

A few years ago, some Wisconsinite friends clued me into the term FIB. I thought they were making it up at first. Really? That can’t be a real thing. Lo and behold, every person I ask who was from Wisconsin knows that a FIB is a Fucking Illinois Bastard. Thanks to Edward McClelland’s new book How to Speak Midwestern, the phrase has gained literary dignity, along with FISHTAB (Fucking Illinois Shithead Towing a Boat), and the more innocuous Michigan term of endearment FIP.

While a book dedicated to dirty Midwest insults would be entertaining enough, there’s much more to the origins of phrases and accents that find their home across the Rust Belt. McClelland divides the Midwest into three sections: Inland North ranges from Buffalo, to Michigan’s Mitten (not dose yoopers), Southeast Wisconsin, and Chicago; The Midland Region includes most of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Downstate (“any part of Illinois south of I-80”), Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska; The North Central includes the Upper Peninsula, most of Wisconsin, all of Minnesota, and most of the Dakotas. McClelland tracks immigration patterns through different cities and traces how European immigrants trying to learn English led to the creation of most regional accents.

McClelland also explores the disappearing accent, due to people with strong local accents being seen as too provincial or uneducated or even as caricatures (consider the Superfans). “Dese, Dem, and Dose” don’t sound as sophisticated as their correct pronunciations. All over the Midwest, accents are disappearing or used only in ironic ways, and McClelland notes the difference in pronunciations between older and younger generations. Additionally, it is now more common to hear accents from other parts of the country due to more access to national media such as professional sports broadcasts, or the post World War II increase of students attending college. McClelland does concede that the accents he writes about are primarily from white people, due to settlements of black people and other minorities occurring in higher numbers in these regions only after World War I. And of course when black people first moved into these areas, there were strict housing codes, de facto and de jure segregation, etc., that led to linguistic segregation as well.

Reading about the history and evolution of accents was interesting (and I’m not saying that in the passive-aggressive way), but the most fun part of this book was reading the glossaries devoted to each state. Common phrases in each region include something relating to a highway or major road, an entirely unhealthy but delicious sounding meal, colleges and college football teams, references to politicians, local history, or just unique abbreviations: Minnesota takes credit for “jeet?” but I think an argument can be made for the condensing of “did you eat” into one syllable as Chicagoese. But don’t even think about telling someone from the Burgh that jagoff originated anywhere outside of “Stillers” territory.

Most Chicago readers will recognize the meanings that Clout, Dibs, Drill, Jewels, Loop, and Machine have in our city. But I can’t say I knew that Iowans referred to the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers as the East and West Coasts. Or the correct way to pronounce I-64 in St. Louis is “Highway Farty.” Or the quintessential Pittsburgh phrase is “Yinz.” Or the versatility of the Michigan “eh.” Or the difference between Ruin Porn and UrbEx. Not to mention, I’ve added fricasse in Indiana, mojakka in Minnesota, a garbage plate after a night of drinking too many genny’s in Buffalo, and a Primanti sandwich while in dahntahn Pittsburgh to my list of things I need to eat immediately.

What we say and how we say it directly relates to how we define ourselves. We don’t get to choose where we are born and we don’t get to choose our accents. McClelland shows us that by embracing our local phrases and accents (and even being able to poke a little fun at them), we cultivate the uniqueness of our cities, grow closer to our communities, and define   our cultural identities.

Call me proud to be a FIB.

McClelland is the author ofYoung Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President and Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland.

How to Speak Midwestern ($15-17, paperback, Belt Publishing) is available from bookstores or from the publisher.

Andrew Hertzberg
Andrew Hertzberg