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. 
References
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