The key to detecting a Minnesota accent can be as simple as asking someone to say the name of our state. The so-called “Minnesota o” – as long as a Minnesota goodbye – is one of the accent’s most distinct features.
This flat, nasal Minnesota accent has become a symbol of folk charm. After “Fargo” sadly introduced the niche dialect, it became a subject of curiosity and dismay. Hollywood actors who portrayed Minnesotans say it’s the toughest accent they’ve faced.
And even native speakers want to know more. “Why do the Minnesotans have accents? Was one of the most popular questions submitted by attendees at this year’s State Fair to Curious Minnesota, the reporting project fed by Star Tribune readers. Fairgoers voted on their favorite submissions.
Linguists have no difficulty in defining the characteristics of the accent. But its origins are a more obscure subject.
“This is where the controversy lies,” said Daniel Haataja, a linguist who teaches Finnish and phonology at the University of Minnesota, when asked about the origins of the accent. “I don’t think that’s settled.”
Many linguists attribute the unusual single-tone pronunciation by Minnesota people of the longs “a” and “o” to the influence of Scandinavian settlers, as these sounds are common in languages of this region.
But the large number of Minnesota immigrants from Norway and Sweden did not arrive until the second half of the 19e century, noted Haataja. The first Europeans to settle in the region were largely English speakers from the British Isles. And Scottish English speakers and Irish English speakers are known for those same long “a” and “o” pronunciations.
“The question then is whether these characteristics already existed in the English of the early Anglophone immigrants,” he said. “Or if these characteristics come from Swedish and Norwegian.”
Accents are an aspect of dialects, which are variations in the pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar of a language.
Not all people in the same place sound the same. Linguists note that speech is influenced by identity characteristics such as age, race / ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and whether a language is the speaker’s native language.
But there are great similarities in the Minnesotan dialect, shared by others in our Linguistic region Center-Nord, which includes the Dakotas, parts of Iowa, Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
“Bright” and “flat” are how Keely Wolter, a Richfield-based accent and dialogue coach, describes the characteristic Minnesota accent.
The position of the mouth involves tension in the lips and a small movement of the jaw, Wolter explained.
“As Minnesotans, we tend to keep our jaws and lips pretty tight,” she said. “It’s almost like we’re giving a little strained smile, which I think is a beautiful manifestation of the idea of Minnesota Nice.”
This “oral posture” creates high, tight vowel sounds – the flat “a” in “bag”, for example (which sounds like “bayg”).
But the sound most associated with a Minnesota accent, Wolter said, is the long “o”. It sounds like what linguists call a monophthong – a pure sound. In the rest of the United States, “o” is pronounced like a diphthong with two sounds (“o-ah”).
Wolter is making a documentary film with a Minnesota accent, after receiving numerous requests for information about him and finding a few examples to share. (Howard Mohr’s 1987 classic, “How to Speak Minnesotan,” focuses more on dialect vocabulary and low-key communication style.)
For outsiders, Wolter said, the Minnesota accent suggests the speaker is kind but perhaps naive, citing Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls” as an example. “That’s why I think a lot of people with the accent don’t like it,” she said.
Many documentary subjects Wolter interviewed at the Minnesota State Fair used critical terms to describe the strength of their accent. “People would say they thought they had a really bad accent, or that their accent wasn’t that bad,” she said.
But speech lovers are often drawn to the accent for its unique charm, Wolter said. “There’s a kindness and a sweetness to it, which is really appealing to a lot of people – especially the people who train accents,” Wolter said.
The way we speak is the cornerstone of how we see ourselves and how we want others to see us. We often imitate the speech patterns of those around us, Wolter said, just as we are forced to mirror facial expressions – to be accepted by the group.
Our ability to change the way we speak in different contexts, often unconsciously, helps retain niche dialects, Haataja noted. This counteracts the pressure for the tongue to homogenize, which is caused by the increase in ephemeral and media.
“You hear the Minnesota accent fades and mellows over time,” Wolter said. “We’re losing some of that beautiful, singing, tight vowel sound that we used to have.”
Wolter encourages the Minnesotans to embrace their accent and keep it alive.
“I just want everyone to love him as much as I do,” Wolter said. “I want us to stop feeling the shame of the accent.”
If you would like to submit a Curious Minnesota question, complete the form below:
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