New book gets to heart of Yooper dialect

Yooper Talk: Dialect as Identity in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Kathryn A. Remlinger

By Tyler Tichelaar

When I received Yooper Dialect to review, my first thought was, “It’s about time.” After all, we all know there’s a Yooper dialect, but I don’t know that anyone has ever written extensively about it. I had heard years ago that it is a mix of New England, Canadian, Finnish and Italian dialects, but Kathryn Remlinger reveals in this book that it’s far more complicated than that. I have to admit I was skeptical that a book published by Wisconsin University Press and written by someone who works at Grand Valley State University would be able to provide a reliable source of information about the Yooper dialect, but Remlinger was on top of her game throughout this book and with a PhD from Michigan Tech, she is clearly familiar with Yooper speakers.

In fact, Remlinger spent considerable time talking to Yoopers and researching how the dialect has been used in marketing to tourists and as a way to establish a sense of identity for us Yoopers. She interviewed 75 lifelong residents of the U.P. and spent 16 years doing fieldwork to write this book. Trust me, even though it’s only about 200 pages, this is no light, fluffy read. Yooper Dialect is a very serious academic book that may not appeal to the average reader but will be of interest to anyone who is a lover of language or a serious student of linguistics.

Remlinger begins by exploring how a unique Yooper dialect emerged by first discussing the history of the various people who came to the Upper Peninsula in the last 175 or so years, and how the isolation of living in the area aided the dialect’s growth. Ultimately, she concludes that four major factors have helped U.P. English to develop into its current variety: 1) geography, 2) immigration and settlement patterns, 3) economics and 4) language attitudes. She focuses particularly on the dialect as it is spoken in the Keweenaw peninsula and Marquette County, but she notes that there really is no such thing as one Yooper dialect because it varies from one community to another in the U.P., and those variations are all affected by the four major factors she has identified.

I was surprised by just how many factors have gone into forming the Yooper dialect. Of course, the dialect started out largely because of mispronunciation and misuse of English by non-native English speakers. Those who first came to the U.P. and didn’t speak English learned it with moderate success, but they passed on their interesting pronunciations and words mixed from their own languages to their children and future generations—words like sauna and chook. Mixed with these efforts to learn English was how native English speakers would make fun of the immigrants’ speech patterns, which served to identify, refine, and popularize the dialect. Remlinger goes into great detail here about how syllable stress patterns developed, how linguistic features like “de” and “brudder” were developed and associated with the working class/immigrants, and how the structure of the Finnish language affected how well Finns learned English and why they made certain errors in their speech. She also explains and gives examples of some linguistic terms, though linguists may find this discussion more interesting than I did. What I enjoyed more was her discussion of how Yoopers began to identify themselves with the language.

Prior to the mid-20th century, the Yooper dialect was seen as the dialect of immigrants, but by the 1940s or so, this began to shift as second- and third-generation Yoopers descended from immigrants continued to speak the dialect. U.P. tourism really began to take off at this time, especially with the completion of the Mackinac Bridge. By the 1980s, the Yooper dialect was being sold as a tourist attraction. This largely started, Remlinger reminds us, with Jack Bowers of Marquette who started the “Say yah to da U.P., eh” bumper sticker after the U.P. was left out of some of the state’s “Say Yes to Michigan” marketing materials. Whereas speaking a dialect made you an outsider in 19th century Upper Michigan, it made you an insider by the late 20th century.

Remlinger thoroughly documents how Yoopers began to embrace the dialect with pride. She offers examples of how it began to appear on billboards and other marketing pieces so that it became a commodity. Yoopers who wanted to show their U.P. pride began to purchase Yooper dialect bumper stickers and T-shirts. U.P. businesses used the Yooper dialect to market themselves to locals and gain their trust. For example, Gauthier Insurance of Ishpeming had a billboard that said, “we don’t insure Saw-nas/we do insure Sow-nas” capitalizing on the Finnish-American determination to get sauna pronounced properly.

Remlinger reveals that the use of the Yooper dialect and other dialects also has its down sides. In cartoons and other media, it’s usually a male speaker who is shown as the best speaker of the dialect. Working-class men speak the dialect while women and more professional men speak proper English and are depicted as less smart than the true Yooper. In this way, the dialect promotes sexism, exclusion and prejudice, even if it it’s done in a humorous way.

Remlinger also discusses the media’s influence on dialect, giving examples of not just the Yooper dialect but others. She examines the belief that dialects are dying because of mainstream media, and she argues that language is always changing and will continue to change. She gives examples of how the media promotes dialect, such as Adam Sandler playing Cajun Man on Saturday Night Live, highlighting the French-Canadian accent. Ultimately, she contends that dialect requires dialogue between two people to exist and develop. People might hear dialect on television, but they also have to speak it for it to make a difference in speech patterns.

I’m not sure that Yooper Talk is for everyone. I found some of it fascinating, but some of the discussion, especially in the early chapters of the book, felt quite repetitive. That said, it offers a very thorough and long overdue discussion of the Yooper dialect. Those interested in linguistics, Yooper culture, and U.P. history will all find much in these pages to think about. Since reading this book, I am more prone to notice how the Yooper dialect is used in advertising in the U.P. and to what purpose, as well as how many of us Yoopers proudly wear it on our hats and shirts and promote it on our bumper stickers. Ultimately, I thank Remlinger for her interest in and contributions to understanding our Yooper dialect’s origins and history.

MM

Editor’s note: Tichelaar is the author of My Marquette and Haunted Marquette. All books reviewed in this column are available in local and online bookstores. For book review submission guidelines, visit  www.marquettemonthly.org.

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