Minnesota Iron Range Dialect
I am a Minnesotan. I have lived here all my life and may continue to do so. Stereotype me:
The 10 o’clock news is my window dressing for the 10 o’clock weather (Mohr, 9). You betcha it is. Yah. I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m not happy here-it could be worse. Lutefisk. . . umm, my favorite.
Are you close; is this representative of myself and most my fellow Minnesotans? Forgive us, but this is slightly, no this is completely ludicrous. For these and all the numerous other stereotypes alike, whom can we blame? Can the Kohan brothers be blamed for their depiction of Minnesotan’s in the movie Fargo? No, it goes much farther back than that. Better yet then, why not blame the Minnesotan of the north-the Iron Rangers. Surely most of them do fit the stereotypes.Most of their speech does indeed portray the above dialect which is a “consistently systematic, regional or social variation of a language” (Shepherd, ix) . . . where language is the vehicle of our expression, personality and culture. In this paper I intend to examine the dialect of the Minnesota Iron Range. I intend to tell you why I am analyzing this and where the distinct dialect comes from-its’ history. As proof of existence I will offer numerous examples from both secondary information and primary observation. What I will attempt to prove is that no amount of education will change the dialect of the range because its development and use is culturally and regionally based, it begins prior to education, and it will continue as long as the speaker is tied to the region.
To begin, I want to express why I chose to focus on the dialect of the Minnesota Iron Range. Honestly, I did it because the way English is spoken on the Range is insane; it sounds illiterate and idiotic. I had grown tired of the Minnesota generalized jokes uttered by family and friends from, or living out of state, when I myself do not exhibit this dialect. I wanted an explanation; tangible evidence that proved that proper education could change Range dialect. Until very recently I was under the wrong assumption that education was failing the Iron Range Minnesotan. I have a godchild in Hibbing who I want nothing but the best for, especially an education. However, as a direct result of research for this paper I became convinced, as I have already stated, that no amount of education will influentially change this Range dialect.
In The Origin And Development Of The Iron Range Dialect In Minnesota William Labov said that “one cannot understand the development of a language change apart from the social life of the community in which it occurs”(qtd. In Linn, 75). Certainly the Iron Range is no exception. The history of the area is rich and must be at least briefly examined. In the 1800’s migrating Americans and European immigrants were seeking agricultural land in Minnesota (Underwood, 1). The Range at this time was a densely forested, almost unpopulated region not appealing to agricultural seeking individuals. The area would continue this way until the late 1800’s-1880’s and 1890’s-when ore was discovered and mines began to open (Underwood, 1). The unique Range dialect essentially starts here. Michael Linn proclaims that “By 1900 operations had increased and the desire for cheap labor forced mining companies to import large numbers of immigrants from Europe. Until 1929 there was also a thriving lumber industry which too brought in large numbers of immigrants” (75). As can be imagined such change in such a short amount of time had an enormous impact. The area was not being settled by residents of our nation, but rather by immigrants of numerous ethnic backgrounds. “There was no base of English speaking residents in the area . . . during the settlement period” (Linn, 75). And thus, “the number of languages and dialects spoken on the Range had been estimated as high as Forty-three” (Linn, 76). All these non-English speaking immigrants were employed by a small number of English speaking bosses (Linn, 76). The relations formed were surely not that different from those of plantation slaves of the past. However, one clear distinction was that these non-English speaking workers “had the hope of, and aspiration for, moving into the main stream of American life. To do this, the immigrant worker desperately needed to learn English” Linn, 76). This is an obvious statement with an obvious solution. Yet too bad there was hardly, if ever, formal English instruction, thus forcing workers to learn from their environments; environments predominately made up of numerous ethnic backgrounds. A foreign influenced English developed as the result and this was the outcome of the first generation of immigrants. “Beginning with the second generation, the first to be born on the Range, a hybridization of assimilation process began” (Linn, 80). The processes then to come are of no surprise. With time English would continue to assimilate itself into the culture, however, non-English language would sustain itself in the background. What would finally result is a unique Range dialect that I, and hopefully others can be more appreciative of, or at least more understanding towards, thanks to knowledge of its deep roots.
With the history established I will now give examples of the unique dialect. Anyone living in Minnesota already realizes some of what I will show, but it goes beyond a thick accent. What is more is that I am personally convinced that register plays little if any part in Range speech. For example, the formal and informal speech of the Food and Beverage Director at my place of employment (who himself is from Chisholm, a college graduate as well as a culinary chef) do not differ. Interdental fricatives often become alveolar stops both initially, as in them>dem and thing>ting, as well as finally. An example of this would be his tendency to say wit as opposed to with. The director however did just leave a job at a resort hotel in Duluth only two months ago. With time his dialect will grow less and less Range unique.
Many other phonological patterns occur which make the Range dialect unique. Chances are most of us have noticed these numerous times–regardless if we knew the technical terminology-we noticed the strange sounds. Most every kind of Range representative pattern was demonstrated via secondary data I received in Harold B. Allen’s volumes of The Linguistic Atlas Of The Upper Midwest. One particular pattern that should be a noticeable style marker for the Range is the absence of the combination of the preposition and the article to the in sentences such as I want to go to the show and I want to go to Hibbing. This expression also occurs often in the past tense and in the negative, in expressions such as we went to town and I didn’t go to the show.
Still more examples are the tendencies for the range habitants to devoice consonates both initially (Duluth>tulut) and finally (Kid(z)>kits). “In final position, devoicing is so strong that often an /n/ is devoiced so that it is followed by a voiceless /g/ offglide” (Linn, 82). Is it clear what I am sayin ? The Dialect Of The Mesabi Range, written by Gary N. Underwood also lists some common verb forms used on the Range and usually not elsewhere in the State. Some of these listed on page 40 through 50 are especially noticeable in my godchild. Like the Range informants Underwood questioned, he too will use lied in place of lay, kneeled instead of knelt, took as opposed to taken and teached in place of teach. These are only a few noticeable thus far. Underwood lists many, many more that my godchild will pick up as he matures. Point taken; the Range dialect is quite unique and examples of it are numerous and easily recognizable.
To address the argument that correcting the Range dialect is a matter of education I can provide the following thoughts, ideas and conclusions. Minnesota education has consistently been rated quite high for years-the state prides itself on that. My question then was how did the schools around the state and their implementation of the basic skills compare? No matter what public school one looks at its core curriculum has compared to another. All schools teach math and science, phy ed and health, English and language arts, etc.. How they went about this did differ by district, just like each educator has her or his own teaching style, the skills were the same. For example, when I was in high school in St. Cloud, Minnesota, the courses I took were the same courses my cousin in Chisholm took. Interesting. . . we have quite different dialects. Was one of our education’s a failure? Of course not. He learned the same things I learned and English was no exception. Education would not change either one of our differing dialects. As soon as school was out he again would be saturated with Range dialect and speech pattern. His dialect is regional and its development began long before his schooling did. This certainly implies something, which I will get to. But first I want to clarify the following. Throughout Minnesota education and curriculum has always been similar, now more so than ever thanks to Minnesota Graduation Standards. “In 1993, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law requiring the State Board and the former Department of Education (now CFL) to develop a graduation rule based of results” (http://cfl.state.mn.us/grad/WebGSFeb.htm). The standards define what it takes to know or do something very well.They are clearly defined specific expectations against which individual performance and progress can be judged. For our interest, the standards of Read, View and Listen, obtained at (http://cfl.state.mn.us/grad/rule3501.htm) are as follows. The students must be able to demonstrate the ability to comprehend and evaluate complex information by reading, listening and viewing varied English language selections. The students must demonstrate the ability to use information from technical reading, listening and viewing selections. The students must demonstrate the ability to write for academic purposes in conventions of standard written English. The students must be able to write in English language for a variety of technical purposes. The students must possess the ability to construct and deliver public speeches using English language conventions, and the students shall demonstrate understanding of interpersonal communication strategies. These are the standards related to English. They all have been or are in the implementation process now. Looking at them one can see they really will do nothing for Range students in a “proper” dialect sense. Even if applicable information will be taught (which by the looks of it will not-pertaining to dialect and speech patterns) the Range dialect will not change. The education argument holds no ground. I assumed it did, but my research has proven otherwise. We cannot teach or influence a change in something that is embedded in culture and developed prior to education. So what then, if anything, can be done?
I have mentioned that the Range dialect begins developing prior to any formal education. This is indisputable. We have learned in class that language acquisition begins at a very young age. There has been exhaustive work done on this subject. It should be obvious and thus I will not dwell on it. Simply put, children pick things up as they age. Children on the Range will hear their parents and siblings speech (to name a few). They will mimic these speech patterns and will have learned numerous words and utterances much before they begin schooling. “Acquisition requires interaction with speakers of the language being acquired” (Finegan, 448). Even the acquisition is indirect and hard to influence correctly-in a teaching sense. Finegan claims in our class text that “conscious attempts to teach correct linguistic forms to children lead nowhere, because children simply ignore instruction and go on acquiring a native tongue at their own pace” (448). There the facts are again; it is not an issue of education.
The final issue pertaining to the Iron Range unique dialect is a regional/cultural one. Again a simple, hard to debate idea which encompasses all my previous points. The Range dialect developed through a rich history. People that use its unique speech patterns are immersed in Range culture and living in its geographic region. (People who demonstrate the dialect outside the region are most likely to be from the area. Upon removal, they will eventually begin to lose the unique dialect distinctiveness). Children are going to develop patterns early on and the dialect filtration will continue. No amounts of education will change this. One can always be taught what is correct-though this too is unlikely based upon the Graduation Standards to be fully implemented-but the information will not likely take precedence over the information acquired elsewhere in the lifestyle and culture of the region. The fact is that the Range dialect is unique to the Range. As long as an individual is within the region and immersed in its culture he or she will demonstrate the dialect. (There are always a few exceptions, but the majority here will be overwhelming). I am a true Minnesotan yet I do not demonstrate the Range unique dialect. Never having lived there and avoiding all avoidable visits to the area, why would I demonstrate the dialect? If anything my personal dialect would be and may be alike to those from Stearns County Minnesota. Though now, having been removed for 5 years and living in the Twin cities, I probably resemble the speech patterns of other Twin Cities non-minority residents. The point being is that people sound alike to those they are related to via culture and region. To distance oneself from the Range dialect the speaker would have to leave the area for a time; relevant probably to the amount of time spent living on the Iron Range. Cultural influence prevails. Cultural remove is not a good solution, but to loose the dialect it may be the only solution.
I am not so annoyed anymore. I had thought education was failing my Range neighbors of Minnesota. But it is not. Their unique dialect is just that-unique. Its history is incredibly interesting and deserving of historical respect. The dialect is fun. The people there do not lack intelligence and they surely do not lack cultural/regional distinctiveness and pride. Sure, the dialect is fun to joke about. . . it still sounds funny to me any way I look at it. But I am educated about the dialect now. Conclusions have been drawn. Had I not been so quick to judge I could have learned the truth behind the dialect, which in reality is an obvious one. I hope others will be capable and willing to see this too: The Northern Minnesota Iron Range dialect is not going to disappear. Enjoy it. “You betcha!”
1. Allen, Harold B. The Linguistic Atlas Of The Upper Midwest. 3 vols. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1973.
2. Finegan, Edward. Language: its structure and use. 2nd ed. Orlando: Harcourt Brace
; Company, 1994.
3. Linn, Michael D. “The Origin And Development Of The Iron Range Dialect In
Northern Minnesota.” Studia Anglica Posnaniensia21. (1988): 75-87.
4. Mohr, Howard. How To Talk Minnesotan. New York: Penquin Books, 1987.
5. Sheperd, Valerie. Language Variety and the Art of the Everyday Poetry In Speech.
New York, 1990.
6. Underwood, Gary N. “The Dialect of The Mesabi Range.” American Dialect Society
67. University of Alabama Press, 1988.
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November 19th, 1998.
November 19th, 1998.