Regional Dialects in the Media

We are all familiar with media representations of regional dialects. Representations include the speech of characters inhabiting Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon books and radio shows, movies like the Coen brothers’ Fargo and Jeff Daniels’ Escanaba in da Moonlight. In music, we find representations in the songs of the UP’s Da Yoopers and Manitowoc, Wisconsin’s Happy Schnapps Combo. On YouTube we see Ken Sheldon’s character Fred Marple and his depiction of Yankee life in Frost Heaves, New Hampshire, where “you can’t get there from here.” Facebook groups based on dialect include I randomly Speak with a Southern Accent and I Know How to Pronounce Sauna. Websites such as Appalachian Dialect of Eastern Kentucky and The Gumbo Pagesrepresent dialect with glossaries of “Mountain Talk” and “A Lexicon of New Orleans Terminology and Speech,” respectively. And poetry, such as “Vacationland” by Ander Monson (2005), relies on readers’ recognition of ‘pank’ as a word indexing Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. These representations not only reflect attitudes about US regional dialects and groups of speakers, but also shape public understanding of what makes regional speech distinctive.

Similarly, Michiganders imitate UP English by peppering their speech with eh, pank (‘to pat down, to make compact’), Let’s go mall(‘Let’s go to the mall’), yah (‘yeah, yes’), and you betcha. Wisconsinites refer to ‘Sconsin (‘Wisconsin’), bubblers (‘drinking fountains’), brats (‘bratwurst’), and say yah hey and com’ere once when they want to convey a sense of Wisconsin speech. Northerners imitate Southerners by saying y’all come back now, ya heah! While Cajuns of Louisiana are characterized by their use of yat (‘Where you at?’), dis (‘this’), and dat (‘that’). We recognize these features in relating to certain places (New England, Louisiana, Wisconsin, the UP, Appalachia) and groups of people (Yankees, Cajuns, Cheeseheads, Yoopers, and Hillbillies) because they draw on enregistered features, features that have become recognizable and that reiterate meanings that link language, people, and place. Despite the limited meanings forged within these links, in reality, variation is a matter of contextualized stylistic practice and speakers draw on a range of features in their everyday uses of language. Variationist research demonstrates that speakers rely on certain stylistic practices to index particular identities, from age, to region, to gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. The ways in which these meanings are connected and reused rely on the recirculation of specific linguistic features: stock phrases, repeated words, and pronunciations. Individuals discursively create and recognize these links through their repeated use aligned with particular speech events and contexts. As people interact through and across various media they rely on indexicality, mediatization, and enregisterment to ensure that these meanings are recognizable and meaningful.