Yoopers, Trolls, and Detroiters: Perceptions of Michiganders’ Talk

Where in Michigan do you think people speak best? Why? Where in Michigan do you think people speak worst? Why? These are questions that Angela Tramontelli are investigating. We’re curious as to where Michganders think the best and worse English is spoken in our state and who they think speaks the best and worse English. 

Perceptual dialectology studies the beliefs that non-linguists have about language variation, the ways that language differs from place to place and/or group to group. While sociolinguists (those who study language variation and change) typically categorize regional dialects according to bundles of linguistic features (pronunciations, vocabulary, grammatical structures), perceptual dialect studies have found that non-linguists determine dialect boundaries not only by linguistic features (e.g., Mase 1964; Lance 1999; Benson 2003; Evans 2012), but also along political and civil boundaries (e.g., Sibata 1959; Preston 1986; Inoue 1996; Lance 1999), and according to cultural differences (Preston 2002). Most importantly, previous research (e.g. Lambert, Hodgson, Gardner & Fillenbaum 1960; Giles 1970; Giles & Ryan 1982; Niedzielski & Preston 2003), has demonstrated that speaker attitudes of dialects directly correspond to attitudes about groups of speakers. These beliefs play a critical role in understanding the effects of linguistic and social prejudices on language change: speakers of stigmatized dialects are often pressured to change the way they talk. Therefore, these perceptions and attitudes are important to an understanding of the factors that affect language change, the relationship between language variation and groups of speakers, as well as the relationship between linguistic prejudice and social prejudice. 
Our study contributes to a growing body of research in this area. We are conducting surveys with Michigan residents to investigate these beliefs and are analyzing the data for patterns in how respondents divide the state into dialect regions and the social characteristics they attach to the speakers who live there. Perceptions such as these within one state can reveal local social categories, including urban/rural distinction (Evans 2012) or the belief in the absence of dialect in a particular state or region (Preston 2002).
Our study further contributes to research on Michigan dialects (e.g. Remlinger 2006; 2007a, b; 2009; Remlinger, Salmons, & von Schniedemesser 2009; Simon 2005) and would add to existing research that examines language attitudes within an individual state (Benson 2003; Bucholtz et al. 2007; Evans 2012), rather than the majority of perceptual dialect studies which focus on regional boundaries within an entire country. A focus on Michigan is particularly significant because unlike most states, it has two main regional dialects so distinct that residents separate the two areas linguistically and socially, as reflected in the labels Yooper and Troll and web pages such as “Michigan Accent: Pronunciations Unique to Us” (www.michigannative.com) and “Yooper Dialect” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yooper_dialect).
Our study also builds on research that demonstrates that the attitudes people hold towards regional dialects are often representative of attitudes about the speakers of those dialects (Preston 1989, 2003; Benson 2003; Bucholtz et al. 2007). The project relies on a language ideology framework (e.g. Lippi-Green 1997; Irvine & Gal 2000; Silverstein 2003), which explains how these attitudes and resulting prejudices reside within the association of particular linguistic features with certain social characteristics. Our goals include creating awareness of this association, examining the relationship between perceptions of and attitudes towards language use and local social categories, furthering the understanding of dialect boundaries in Michigan, examining factors that affect language change, and investigating the common belief that English in the Lower Peninsula is standard and English in the UP is non-standard. 
Benson, E. (2003). Folk linguistic perceptions and the mapping of dialect boundaries. American Speech, 78 (3): 307-330.
Bucholtz, M., Bermudez, N., Fung,V., Edwards, L., & Vargas, R. (2007). Hella Nor Cal or Totally So Cal?: The Perceptual Dialectology of California. Journal of English Linguistics, 35: 325-352. DOI: 10.1177/0075424207307780
Evans, B. (2012). “Seattletonian” to “Faux Hick”: Perceptions of English in Washington state. American Speech 86, 4: 383-414. 
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–––. with Salmons, Joseph and von Schneidemesser, Luanne. (2009). Revised perceptions: Changing dialect perceptions in Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. American Speech, 84 (2):176-192.
–––. (2007a). The intertwined histories of identity and dialect in Michigan’s Copper Country. In A. Hoagland, E. Nordberg, & T. Reynolds, eds., New perspectives on Michigan’s Copper Country, pp. 62-84. Houghton, MI: Quincy Mine Hoist Association.
–––. (2007b). Newfies, Cajuns, Hillbillies, and Yoopers: Gendered media representations of regional dialects. Linguistica Atlantica, Journal of the Atlantic Provinces Linguistic Association, 26-27: 96-100.
–––. (2006). What it means to be a Yooper: Identity, language attitudes, and variation in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. In M. Filppula, M. Palander, J. Klemola and E. Penttilä, eds., Topics in dialectal variation, pp. 125-144. Joensuu, Finland: University of Joensuu Press.
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Enregisterment and Semiotic Mediation: The Role of Recognition in Dialect-making

 Adam Sandler’s character, Cajun Man, a feature of Saturday Night Live skits in 2003, is defined as ‘Cajun Man’ by his mock Cajun French accent, particularly its stress on the nasalization of the final syllable –tion: “onION,” “vacaTION” “hallucinaTION,” “deficaTION”. But Cajun Man is also ‘Cajun’ and ‘man’ because his talk centers a stereotype of a Cajun man: spicy food, drunkenness, and scatological humor. The accent and content of his talk, in conjunction with his appearance—straw hat, suspenders, a plaid flannel shirt with cut off sleeves over a dingy white longjohn shirt—interdiscursively combine to index ‘Cajun man.’ Meaning is communicated semiotically—through recognizable linguistic features and cultural values attached to the visual image. Similarly, we recognize the authenticity of Boston Harbor Tea in the label’s index of a Boston pronunciation: “’Bawstonaba’ Registered” (‘Boston Harbor Registered’). Its authenticity is further reinforced with the intertextuality of the claim that the tea is “blended and packed for…the firm which supplied tea 1772-1774 for the historic Boston Tea Parties”. The enregistered pronunciations of aw in Bawston and the (r)-less and (h)-less pronunciations of aba (harbor) along with the claim to historic events semiotically mediate meanings linking language, place, and authenticity. Likewise, no one doubts the authenticity of Pauly D as a real north shore New Jerseyan on MTV’s reality show Jersey Shore. As a prototypical Italian-American East Coast male, his character’s validity depends on what he says, how he says it (in particular his use of –in for –ing and the lack of (r) after vowels), as well as within a particular context (sitting on a tricked-out motorcycle in a working class neighborhood): “I was bon (‘born’) and raised a guido. It’s just a lifestyle, it’s bein Italian, it’s representin, family, friends, tannin, heya (hair) gel, everything” (Jersey Shore, Episode 1). The combined linguistic features and images index ‘Italian American,’ ‘white,’ ‘working class,’ and ‘heterosexual masculinity.’ The semiotic mediation of regional dialect and speaker are recognizable in these examples through the use of specific linguistic features in given contexts, features and contexts that combine to evoke certain and specific meanings that yoke language, place, and people. Because these contextualized features are considered exemplar, their use effects the perception that best speakers are the most authentic locals. Similarly, the most authentic products, such as Boston Harbor Tea, are the best representations of localness through the use of enregistered features and intertextual links with a historic event. Moreover, used within specific contexts and juxtaposed with stereotypical images that evoke authenticity, dialect is often discursively constructed as gender-, sexuality-, race-, and class-based. Social meanings are as much a part of the semiotic mediation of ‘dialect’ as are pronunciation and word use and cultural categories: speaker authenticity relies on recognizable discursive practices, where language use is the determining factor, and indexicality, where the ‘best’ speakers of a regional variety are recognized as the most authentic locals. In these ways, the practice of masculinity—what it means to be heterosexual male, specifically, is tied to the practice of dialect—dialect-making.