american English

You say ‘soda’, I say ‘pop’: a Midwestern observation of language

We continue American English month with another guest post from Denise Du Vernay. Denise earned her master’s degree in English from Florida State University. She is co-author of The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield. Her favorite pop is Diet Coke.


As a child growing up in Minnesota, I often said yah, you betcha and uff da. I drank pop and ate hot dishes. When I moved to Florida, I quickly learned that what I called a shopping cart was a buggy and that some people referred to all carbonated beverages as Coke*. I also learned that most Americans refer to a hot dish as a casserole.

Minnesotans are known for their politeness and avoidance of confrontation; we even have a term for it: Minnesota nice. I’d seen the movie Fargo, and I knew that some people found my accent mock-worthy, so I made a point of trying to make my pronunciation of vowels less rounded and nasal. Occasionally, I even tried a fake southern drawl, so it wouldn’t be so obvious that I was a Yankee. It’s been over 10 years since I first made a conscious decision to change my accent, but sometimes when I’m very tired or have had a bit too much wine, I can hear the Minnesota coming through.

When I moved to Wisconsin from Florida, I assumed that I could go back to my old way of speaking. Minnesota, after all, borders Wisconsin— how different could it be? My first mistake was assuming I could go back to saying pop instead of soda. Although I’d got used to saying soda down in Florida, I find pop much more comfortable. Sadly, I was wrong — although it’s called pop in Minnesota and even in Chicago, up the road in Milwaukee it’s all about the soda.

Unique to southeast Wisconsin is the bubbler** — what others call a drinking fountain. I have no trouble with that though, because I find it charming and adorable. Some locals not only prefer the term bubbler, but they emphatically reject the use of the word fountain, arguing that fountains are those big decorative things in parks!

Wisconsinites often end their sentences with hey, a habit I have not yet successfully acquired, even after eight years. It would be easier to do if it were equivalent to the Canadian eh?, but it’s not. Although ending a sentence with hey often implies a question mark, it doesn’t require one, and it’s not always inflected. Although occasionally similar to eh (as in, ‘don’t you agree?’) it is much more versatile and nuanced than that. I’ve heard hey used as its own sentence, preceded by ‘I know’, and as an interjection of surprise, agreement, disagreement, and even as a comforting cooing sound!

Across the Midwest, things get even stranger. I have a friend who was raised all over the US, but whose parents are from eastern Ohio, and his pronunciation of the word pull sounds exactly like my pool. Ohio natives have another quirky linguistic habit too — omitting the infinitive. They’ll make a comment like ‘My car needs washed’ where I (and, I think, most American English speakers) would say ‘My car needs to be washed’. While I think it sounds wrong to omit the infinitive to be , I won’t go so far as to say it’s grammatically incorrect: if it’s a regional thing, who am I to judge? In written English, though, I’d say the infinitive should be there.

Change to language is natural and normal, and while television and the Internet are doing their part to universalize it, there will never be one English. And I love that. Regional differences based on cultural things like Minnesota nice behavior, foods, or local businesses, will always affect language. This creates a richness and diversity that makes studying and speaking English so much fun.


* The headquarters of Coca-Cola is in Atlanta, thus many southerners refer to all soft drinks as Coke, much like many Americans refer to all tissues as Kleenex.
** Bubbler is a trademarked brand name of drinking fountains by Kohler, a Wisconsin plumbing manufacturer.

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Denise Du Vernay


  • Hi! This was an interesting post…I’ve only met a few people from the Midwest, mainly from Chicago and Cleveland. I knew about the pop vs. soda thing, and about Minnesota Nice, but the rest is all new to me. I’m from New York City, and I say soda, shopping cart, water/drinking fountain, and tissues, not Kleenex. Although, I think one of the reasons why I DON’T say Kleenex for any kind of tissue is because my family never really bought Kleenex brand tissues. It was always Marcal and Scotties brand tissues.

  • I have the exact opposite experience. I moved from Florida to Minnesota (and lived in Wisconsin for a bit). I know exactly what you meant though!

    I knew I had been officially indoctrinated the day my ‘Southern belle’ grandma told me I sounded like a Yankee…


  • P.S. I still maintain that the game is called “Duck Duck GOOSE” and not that “Duck Duck Gray Duck” foolishness they teach the youngsters around here. 😉

  • Thanks for your comments. I’ve only visited New York once and didn’t get a chance to observe those things. Isn’t it all so interesting?

    I’ve been trying to train myself to say “tissues” instead of “Kleenex,” but it’s hard habit to break!

  • Too funny. I’m from the South (LA) but now live in the Midwest (OH). As you point out above, like most Southerners, I’ve always said “Coke” for all soft drinks. I can’t do that there here, however, where “pop” is king. At the same time, I can’t stand the word POP, so when I order, I split the different with, “I’d like a soda, please.” =)

  • In defense of Duck, Duck, Gray Duck, I have to say that Duck, Duck, Goose is pointless. Granted, neither game is particularly intellectually stimulating, but at least with Duck, Duck, Gray Duck, kids get to be creative and select interesting colors for their ducks. I would say things like “tangerine duck, aquamarine duck, chartreuse duck . . “

  • I just have to say, I live in Rhode Island and we call the water fountain a bubbler (bubblah even haha). There might be a few other north east states that do as well. Also we say jimmies instead of ice cream sprinkles. And of course we have coffee milk which is wicked awesome.

  • so fascinating. I have lived in Boston (baby-age), Connecticut, western NY state (south of Buffalo/Rochester towards PA-border), North Carolina (south of Charlotte and college in the mtns and at Chapel Hill), Florida (Miami) and Chicago — and now live in Germany!
    Does anyone say “soda pop” anymore? I seem to remember that as a variation on soda/pop/coke (have said all of those – in Germany the general term for all carbonated soft drinks is “Limonade”!!).
    I too took on “y’all” when we moved to North Carolina, although being a “southerner” and (with that naturally) a “rebel” (dating back to the Civil War) always ran just a bit against my grain.
    I’ve always said drinking or water fountain, too, and for me a ‘hot dish’ would be any kind of hot meal/thing to eat, I guess, including but not limited to a casserole. “Casserole dish” is of course the deep (usually glass) pan that a casserole is baked in, sometimes also referred to simply as a ‘casserole’.


  • … I remember being amused at my math teacher’s having a southern accent – which sounded so put-on for me when I moved to NC as a “rising junior” in high school (that’s what they call people going into the 11th grade in that part of NC, anyway) – and one word that really stuck/sticks out for me, that she said funny (or ‘wrong’ as I thought!) is: “similar” — she pronounced it “sim-you-luhr” (‘uh’ should indicate a shwa sound) where I would say “simi-ih-luhr” — where’d she get the “u” from??, I thought!

    Another interesting thing was “can I hold that?” means “can I borrow/have that?” in (southern central) NC!

    We of course remained northerners for our southern friends and acquaintances, although we were “nice northerners”! 🙂

  • Please tell me how the non-word “woken” can be so well accepted, even among top authors?? I see it almost daily.

    And recently, on the cover of a child’s learning book, I found a neat book on how to infer. The title is “Inferencing.” How does English evolve in these strange ways? English does have structure and form, even while it is “regionalized.” Enjoyed the comments and the blog!

    John G.

  • I hadn’t done my research, had I? Ooops! I was positive I could show that “woken” was not in the declination of “to wake,” but found it has somehow been added to the formal declination — while I wasn’t looking. Embarrassed am I. Showed my age — I am old!

    Thanks. Enjoyed the discourse.


  • I grew up in Texas where we called all carbonated soft drinks “coke.”
    For example, “What would you like to drink?” “I’ll have a coke.” “What kind of coke?” “How about a Dr. Pepper?”
    When I moved to New England, I amused my friends with pronunciation of insurance as “IN-surance,” and that November holiday as “THANKS-giving.”
    Heck, I even called the idiot box “TEE-v.”
    I was so adamant about my pronunciation that after a couple of months I had my roommates confused and they started following my pronunciation and then getting confused and second-guessing themselves!
    Reverse regionalism encroachment!

  • Bubbler – Actually the term “bubbler” is not exclusive to Wisconsin – it’s is widely used in New England, especially in Massachusetts – google the word and you’ll see – we all call a “water fountain” a bubbler here too 🙂

  • I also agree with Jen. I was surprised on moving up here that we did not have water fountains, but rather we had “bubblahs.” Then there was that whole shake, frappe, egg cream nomenclature that I had to get used to. And a grinder for a sub sandwich was also new. Especially as a teen, for whom a sub is a staple of life.

    So much interesting regional vocabulary to learn about!

  • HA. I was born and raised in northern minnesota. We do not say ya you betcha or uff-da. I`ve never heard a minnesotan be so stereoptypical of them selves. Very lame.

  • Alyssa,
    My personal language ticks as a Minnesotan were as much a result of my family as my community. Each Minnesota town has its own personality, of course. My hometown was largely German, and very few people in my town said “yah” or “uff da.” However, I am of Norwegian descent, and my family members did talk like that while I was growing up–many of them still do. I wasn’t intending to perpetuate a stereotype, I was simply talking about regional English as I experience it. I’m proud of my Minnesotan/Norwegian background, I still say “uff da” when the situation warrants it, and if that makes me lame, then so be it.
    -Denise Du Vernay

  • I’m prepping for a post at about unique Midwesterner phrases – probably in October. My Iowa German grandpa used to tease his wife, my Norwegian Grandma, by saying uff da all the time. We kids adored it. And I say you betcha often. We came up with a few other Wisconsinisms, but I’d love to hear more! My former Joisy b-i-l thought we were hysterical.

  • Well, I still say soda-pop even after all these years. My mother thinks I started saying soda-pop because the town she was raised in called it soda and the town my father was raised in called it pop. So when I started talking and trying to connect the two words, I just called it soda-pop. I have not heard any one else in the 45 years of my life call it soda-pop. In fact the first time I heard someone else refer to a “beverage” as soda-pop was in the movie “Antitrust” that I just saw rather recently. Tim Robbins’ character asks Ryan Phillippe’s character if he wants a soda-pop. Let’s just say that my mouth dropped and I played it back to my husband because he does NOT use the word soda-pop.

  • I’m teaching Intermediate or advanced English to a Spanish speaking woman (who also speaks Portuguese, Latin, Chinese, French, and is also learning Italian. She lives normally in Hong Kong. She wonders why Americans end sentences with prepositions, why English is not standard particularly among different English speaking countries and of lots more anomalies. She knows that Spanish words differ among Spanish speaking countries and that certain sounds vary in various regions of the same country. She hears things from so many areas and is confused as to what is correct. I have to tell her that we have such an eclectic language because Americans are from all over the world and also because England was overrun by so many countries in its early history. She says that doesn’t help pronounce words nor to chose how to phrase some things. It keeps things interesting.

  • I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin in the ’60s and early ’70s and we always said ‘pop,’ not soda. We also said ‘bubbler’ for water fountain and ‘tennies’ for sneakers. We moved to a Chicago suburb when I was 12 and my tennies became sneakers, the bubbler became a water fountain, and if I remember correctly the kids in Oak Park said ‘soda’ instead of pop. But maybe it’s different in the City.

  • P.S. In Madison we always called tissues ‘Kleenex,’ but I can’t remember anyone ending their sentences with ‘hey.’ Could that be a Milwaukee thing?

    P.P.S. I lived in Madison again as a young adult for 15 months, went back to visit every Christmas for many years, and still have 2 brothers, a niece & a nephew who live there, and nobody ends their sentences with ‘hey.’ I guess the regional thing can apply to some very small areas…

  • I grew up in Ohio, drinking pop, redding up (cleaning), playing in the crick, sitting on the davenport, pulling my britches up, warshing (washing) up for dinner ~ which was Sunday after church.
    One of my favorite cds is of my dad, who made a recording shortly before he passed from cancer, singing how Jesus warshed our sins, white as snow. I laugh every time . . .
    Gotta go. My car needs washed!
    Fun to read your blog.

  • It’s really funny because I grew up just outside of Chicago and I have always said Pop but when we moved to North East Iowa, all that changed. Everybody out here says soda. The other thing I had to get used to was if you ask somebody in North East Iowa “May I use your Washroom” they won’t understand you. Everybody out here says “Bathroom” even though it may not have a tub in it. (i.e. a Gas Station)

  • I live in Missouri and we don’t say “My car needs washed”, we say “My car needs warshed.”

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