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.