About that accent
By Aaron J. Brown
The tricky thing about accents is that no one knows they have an accent until someone else points it out. The way we speak, our language and colloquialisms, all emerge from the simmering pot of our respective upbringings. Much like a slow cooker in the kitchen, we don’t smell what’s cooking in that pot until we leave the house and come back inside. Sometimes the smell indicates a well-seasoned roast, other times cabbage and bullion cubes.
I’m from Minnesota, which to an outsider conjures the accent heard in the movie “Fargo,” named for a North Dakota town but based almost entirely in Minnesota. When this dark comedy came out, many Minnesotans were offended by the way their accent was depicted. They would often berate the film in the very same accent heard in the actual movie. “What kind of a name is Coen, anyway, don’cha know.” The truth is, while “Fargo” often resorts to extremes in its interpretation of the Minnesota accent, we all know that some people around here, maybe most, really do talk that way.
My accent is a special case. I grew up here in northern Minnesota exposed to all the same influences as everyone else. I further grew up on or near the Iron Range where a sharp addition of several super charged ethnic accents piled up upon the Scandinavian standards of the rest of the state. This turns the “Oh, ya” known to Minnesota into the “Oh, ya, interspersed with a fair number of colorful words loosely translated from Slovenian and Italian, respectively. In a strange twist, from an early age I took an interest in broadcasting, a field in which accents are discouraged. The Americans most known for disguising their accents are southerners, however, we northerners, especially we Iron Rangers also have our work cut out for us in the media.
It helps (I think) that I went through high school watching nearly every nightly episode of “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and “Late Night” with David Letterman, and later his “Late Show” on CBS. Carson and Letterman were Midwesterners like me, who grew up in two different generations than mine, but yet in whom I, for some reason, felt a great deal of kinship. I would recite their monologue jokes to fellow students on my hour-long school bus ride, all in the same flat, wry voice of my TV mentors. Where others learned their regional accents from friends and family, I learned mine from TV.
I guess I shouldn’t be proud of this, but at one point, when I was promoting my book about Minnesota’s Iron Range, a reporter told me that despite my being a fifth generation Iron Ranger I didn’t have a hint of an accent. For some reason, I was pleased. I realized that anyone can absorb an accent all their own, if they watch enough Johnny Carson and David Letterman in the basement of their parents’ home, avoiding the high school social life and also working nights at a local adult contemporary radio station broadcasting Michael Bolton and Phil Collins tunes. OK, so my story is perhaps unlike the norm.
Even with my radically altered, freakish, warped Minnesota accent, there are elements I can’t avoid, especially when I’m at my least guarded lingual states. Recently, as I was reading stories to the kids, it was pointed out to me that I say: I’m’n’a. This is a shortened version of “I’m going to.” For instance, one could say “I am going to order a cocktail,” or one could say “I’m’n’a grab a beer.” I am capable of saying “I’m going to,” but when I am in my natural element I will always say “I’m’n’a.”
From this, there is no escape.