What makes a dialect a ‘dialect’? The roots of Upper Peninsula English

This post is based on the TEDxNMU Talk that I gave on March 24, 2018 at Northern Michigan University.

The history of English in the Upper Peninsula is relatively recent compared to other regional varieties found throughout the United States. It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that English speakers regularly visited and then inhabited the region. The dialect’s recent history combined with its isolation, the people who have immigrated to the area, where they have settled, and the languages that they speak are all factors that maintain the dialect and its distinct features.

Four major factors have helped UP English to develop into the variety it is: geography—particularly the isolated location of the Upper Peninsula, historical events such as immigration and settlement patterns, economics—including mining and tourism, and language attitudes, what we think is “good” and “bad” English.

say ya to da up, eh! copyYet it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the term Yooper was popularly used in the UP. In the timeline below we see attitudes at work and their effects on what it means to be a Yooper, some of which are tied to what it means to sound like a Yooper. For examples: 1975 “Yooper”; 1982 Michael Loukinen’s film and connections with perceptions about what it means to be a Yooper; and 1983 Jack Bower’s bumper sticker and 1986 Da Yoopers. These examples demonstrate the connections among dialect, people, and place. This connection most evident in the name Yooper, which is used today for both the residents and the dialect.

  • 1975  “Yooper” in an Editor’s Note, Pick & Axe, Bessemer, 1 March (p. 3).
  • 1979 Escanaba Daily Press holds contest to name the people of the Upper Michigan. “Yooper” is declared the winner.
  • 1982 Sociologist Michael Loukinen attempts to make a documentary about the cultural phenomenon of “Yoopers” but receives widespread criticism from older members of the community and instead releases “Good Man in the Woods”.
  • 1983 “Say Ya To Da U.P. eh?” Bumper sticker printed by Jack Bowers of Marquette in response to the “Say Yes to Michigan” tourism campaign.
  • 1986 Da Yoopers band is formed bringing wider exposure to the term. Originally called the Yoopers.
  • 2014 Yooper is added to the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary as the result of a Scrabble game where Yooper was contested as a ‘word’ because it wasn’t in “the dictionary“. The entry is between yore and yoo hoo.

It’s important to realize that although Yooper dates in print to 1975, it existed well before that in  spoken language. Words must exist in spoken language, everyday conversation, before they appear in the popular press.

So, how did the dialect emerge?
The historical factors of immigration and settlement have had the most significant effect on the dialect. The people who have immigrated to the UP, where they have settled, how they have mixed and mingled, and the languages and dialect of English spoken, all contribute to shaping Upper Peninsula English. Evidence of the resulting language contact is easily found in place names: Presque Isle from Canadian French; Maas Street and Makinen’s Road, located outside of Negaunee are from Finnish. From Anishinaabemowin there are many place names, including Munising, from Gitchi Minissing ‘at the big island’, in reference to Grand Island; Negaunee, loosely translated as ‘pioneer’ because the first iron mine and furnace in the area; and Keweenaw, meaning ‘portage’ or ’passage way’. English place names in the Upper Peninsula are often direct translations from Anishinaabemowin. For example, Portage Lake and Laughing Whitefish River.

old and new kowsit lats

Kowsit Lats, a street in Houghton County, reflects contact between Finnish and English. Kowsit Lats is a result of the sociolinguistic history of the area, but the symbolism is typically lost on local residents as well as outsiders. The two signs, one hand-made and the other an official township street sign, are located on Quincy Hill, near the Quincy mine hoist, which today is a popular tourist attraction. The Quincy mine was in full operation from 1846 to 1945, and many of the miners lived in company owned housing that skirted the mine. Many families had their own cow and some houses included a cowshed or a single-stall barn. Each cow wore a numbered tag, the same number as the miner’s work identification number. Miners and their family members would take their cows to graze at the communal pasture provided by the mining company. This pasture was jokingly called “Kowsit Lats” (‘cowshit flats’) and was located on the right side of the road. In the 1980s, Wilber Salmi, who lived in the area, made a street name sign (in the foreground of the photo) that mirrors official street signs with its green background and white lettering. He placed the sign at the corner of Kowsit Lats Road and US 41 and approached the Quincy Township Board to request that the road be officially named “Kowsit Lats.” (At the time, streets did not have official names and instead were known by geographical features, homesteads, mining locations, or town names.) It was not until 2001 when the emergency telephone number 9-1-1 was established that the township officially named the road and placed a street sign on the east side of Kowsit Lats Road, while keeping the original handmade sign on the west side of the road. In addition to the history behind the name, understanding the meaning behind the street name relies on recognition of local linguistic features that have transferred from Finnish to English: /s/ for (sh), /l/ for /fl/, as well as knowing that the Finnish alphabet does not include the letter C and instead uses K for /k/ sounds. The pun is a result of language contact between English and Finnish: Finnish doesn’t have the (sh) sound, so people whose first language is Finnish, often substitute /s/ for the (sh) sound when speaking English. Similarly, the consonant cluster /fl/ is not a part of Finnish phonology, so the /f/ might be omitted as a result of language contact and transfer.

Kowsit lats is also an example of language change and local dialect features (especially in the northwestern UP) that have changed since the 1980s. Most speakers today do not substitute /s/ for (sh). This change can give the impression that the dialect is dying. But that’s not the case. However, it is changing. Regional dialects, such as local ways of speaking English in the UP, are not dying out, and in fact some features might become stronger over time. But dialects, like language in general, do change—they must change as society changes and as contact with heritage languages fade. These changes are what people notice when they think a dialect is dying.

So what makes a dialect a ‘dialect’?
Here’s an analogy: language is like pie, any old pie. Dialects, or varieties of that language, are different kinds of pie, even tarts, variations on a pie theme. Dialects have similar sounds, words, grammatical structures that make them recognizable as pies, but they differ enough, vary, to make them varieties of the language, or different kinds of pies. They also have enough similar linguistic features that they can be grouped together as part of a language, or as a pie. Even what we perceive as “standard English” is a kind of pie or variety of the English language.

In linguistics, “accent” refers to only to pronunciation, for example, people might speak English with a Japanese accent, a German accent, or Hindi accent. Whereas “dialect” and “variety” refer to the identifiable forms of language that vary on all levels, from pronunciation to grammar, regional and social varieties, such as Wisconsin English or Hispanic English.

sauna insurance signThese identifiable and named dialects vary on all levels of language: phonology or sounds, lexicon or vocabulary, word structure, and grammatical structures.For example, in the UP, many people pronounce sauna as “sow-na” rather than the pronunciation “saw-na,” which is more common in American English. These pronunciations are often a result of language contact: as settlers mixed and mingled and learned English, their languages came into contact, not only with each other, but with English. These sounds are evidence of the area’s history as well as how people learned English: typically from other people who spoke English as a second language, so the English that emerged was “accented” English.

Likewise, everyday language use provides evidence of language contact and a window into the area’s sociolinguistic past, and reflects the various languages that have come into contact in the area. Below are some examples of lexical features, or vocabulary, and word structure, or morphology, for example, yous for the plural ‘you’. No doubt readers from the UP are familiar with some of these examples and can add to this list. What is significant in terms of the idea of a dialect is that while some of these linguistic features are recognizable as local ways of speaking, others like bakery are not, and others like catarrh have disappeared from use.

  • Chook or chuke from touque: A knit winter cap (Canadian French, toque)
  • Catarrh, or “Lake Superior cattarh”: A cold, congestion (Canadian French)
  • Make wood: To cut firewood (Canadian French)
  • Bush: Woods, forest (Cornish English)
  • Yous: plural “you” (Irish English)
  • Place Names: Keweenaw, Ahmeek, Assinins (Anishimabemowin)
  • Choppers: Long-sleeved mittens, usually made with deer skin, removable finger flaps (from Anishinabemowin minjikaawan)
  • Ja, yah: yes (German, Swedish, Danish, compare with Finnish, jo)
  • Bakery: baked goods (German)
  • Camp: cabin, cottage (German)
  • Sauna (Finnish)
  • Sisu: perseverance in the face of adversity (Finnish)
  • Foods, from Finnish: nisu (pulla; sweet cardamom bread); korpu (cinnamon and sugar toast), pannukakku (oven-baked pancake), sauna makkara (ring bologna), juustoa (a kind of cheese) (Finnish), and from Slovenian, povatica (a nut and cinnamon rolled pastry)

bakeryHere we see bakery, meaning ‘baked goods,’ not the place where the baked goods are made, at a food booth at at the Covington Music Festival. In addition to pronunciation, vocabulary, and word structure, dialects also vary semantically, or by word meanings. Bakery is a particularly good example of semantic variation: meaning both ‘baked goods’ and ‘the building where baked goods are made’. Bakery is also an example of language contact between English and German in the UP, as well as in areas of Wisconsin, especially Milwaukee, where Germans settled in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

fullsizeoutput_154Pank is another particularly interesting example because many UP residents from mining areas recognize the word, use it, and understand that it is part of the local dialect. And even more significant is that many people in the UP who use pank think that it is unique to the UP. However, we can see in the entry from the Dictionary of American Regional English that pank is used chiefly in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Upstate New York. What these three distinct regions have in common is a history of mining, and dialectologists think that the word must have come from miners and mining terminology, especially given the similar word, banka, in Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian. These languages were spoken by some of the same folks who immigrated to the UP and who worked in the mines. And, often the consonant /b/ in these languages is pronounced more like a /p/. But, there’s no solid evidence to support to support its origins; that’s why the beginning of the entry says “perhaps a blend…”

Language contact also affects grammatical structures, and often these are not recognized as dialect features or simply a variation of American English, and instead, people mistakenly label them “bad English.” One particularly recognizable example of UP English is what’s called the “illative phrase”, or a phrase that shows movement to or toward a place, for example, “Let’s go to the mall.” In English, this is usually signaled with the preposition “to”. Because of prolonged language contact with Finnish, which doesn’t use a preposition in this phrase and doesn’t include articles (a, an, the), you might here sentences like “Let’s go mall” or “I went post office.” This grammatical structure is a result of language transfer: grammatical rules of Finnish have been transferred to English. Another example of language transfer results from contact with three languages and the tag questions eh and hey, as in “Have a nice day, eh.” “That’s a pretty dress, hey.” This feature came from Cornish English (eh), Anishinaabemowin (en), and/or Canadian French (hien). In the early to mid-1800s, Canadian French and Anishinaabemowin speakers were in close contact and Cornish English speakers were often held up as models for new arrivals not only because they spoke English but also because they had some of the more desirable jobs in the mines. Because of the value placed on Cornish miners, the significant interaction between Canadian French and Anishinaabe, and the similar grammatical structures among the three languages, it might well be that all three  contributed to its current use.

As with any dialect, the sounds, words, phrases, and sentence structures combine in unique ways to create UP English. By knowing the history of UP English, we come to understand how people, place, and language are tightly bound together. We also become aware that, although the rules that make up regional dialects may vary from mainstream American English, they are different rather than “wrong,” “incorrect,” or “bad English.”

yooperpridemagnetHistory and social interaction resulting in language contact are the key ingredients of what makes a dialect a dialect. But our attitudes toward dialects and perceptions of dialect speakers are also significant factors. While there are negative stereotypes associated with what it means to be a Yooper and and the dialect, at the same time there is great pride in being a Yooper and sounding like a Yooper. For example, in the UP, there comes a fierce pride about being local, as well as a do-it-yourself, get by with what you have, independence that’s rooted a history of hard labor in an isolated place that has a climate that can be difficult to thrive in. This magnet reflects the connections between identity, place, and language with “proud, tough, independent,” and by mapping “Yooper” onto the UP. Language is our badge of identity—how else to we show where we’re from? Who are community and family are? Our genders, ages, even the values we hold dear?

So, what makes a dialect a ‘dialect’?
We do: as we shape history, as we share our attitudes about dialects in social media and conversations with friends, coworkers, and family, and as we interact with others and our dialects and languages come into contact. My hope is that by understanding how and why dialects develop that we can realize that variation isn’t “bad” or “good,” it just is. To paraphrase the blogger, Mr Verb: Language varies. Deal with it. Revel in it.







Dialect death? 

My guest post on the University of Wisconsin Press blog:

The remote and isolated location of the Upper Peninsula, along with language contact between English and other languages have shaped Yooper talk over the past 150 years and have helped it to remain fairly distinct from other varieties of American English. In addition, several social and cultural processes have affected the development and longevity of regional dialects. Processes that have specifically shaped Yooper talk include tourism and, more broadly, economics, the sociolinguistic history of the Upper Peninsula, research on regional varieties, awareness about language variation, and how speakers claim identity with language.

To continue reading, click here: Oh yah, that’s Yooper Talk

"Yooper" Gains (More) National Recognition


Surely, this week’s hottest news for Yoopers, Yooper-wannabes, dialectologists, and lexicographers alike, is the news that Merriam-Webster will include Yooper in its collegiate edition later this year. Little do folks know, however, that the word has existed in the American Heritage Dictionary since 1999 and was included in the Dictionary of American Regional English‘s Volume 5. Ben Zimmer writes about the debut of Yooper in Wall Street Journal‘s “Word on the Street” column and Ann Curzan discusses its emergence on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside.” For me, a linguist who has studied the connections between language, place, and identity in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP), to see a regional term–one that I hold near and dear, and that I use as a prefix to “-wannabe”–become (more) nationally recognized is really cool stuff. It’s such a fine example of how social factors from language attitudes, to dialect contact, tourism, and media affect our language use and awareness. I write about this in more detail in “Everyone Up Here: Identity and Enregisterment in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula” and with Joe Salmons and Luanne VonSchneidemesser in “Revised Perceptions: Changing Dialect Perceptions in Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.”

This history of Yooper is not very old. It emerges through a variety of factors, including increased tourism to the UP. The following list of archival evidence from the Marquette County Historical Museum demonstrates Yooper’s recent birth:

· 1972 “Uppenites”: Artist Eugene Sinervo, Sand River, self publishes U.S. map distorting the size of the U.P and Great Lakes.
· 1978 “Yoop”: First known printing of the word “Yoop” by Detroit News journalist Jim Treloar, an Ishpeming and Marquette native.
· 1979 Escanaba Daily Press holds contest to name the people of the Upper Michigan. “Yooper” is declared the winner.
· 1982 Sociologist Michael Loukinen attempts to make a documentary about the cultural phenomenon of “Yoopers” but receives widespread criticism from older members of the community and instead releases “Good Man in the Woods.”      
· 1983 “Say Ya To Da U.P. eh?” Bumper sticker printed by Jack Bowers of Marquette in response to the “Say Yes to Michigan” tourism campaign.
· 1986 Da Yoopers band is formed bringing wider exposure to the term.  (Originally called the Yoopers).

To this list of regional evidence of the emergence and recognition of Yooper as a “real word,” we can add the popular TV game show, Jeopardy‘s use of Yooper in 2003, 2005, and 2014 (according to http://yoopersteez.com/post/yooper-dialect-on-jeopardy). This, and the dictionaries’ entries might appear to make Yooper a “real word.” But, despite this authoritative nod to the authenticity of Yooper, we must remember, as Ann Curzan says that “if we’re all using a word and know what it means, then it’s an actual word.”