COLUMN: "About that accent"

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, March 28, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. An earlier version of the piece aired on “Between You and Me” on 91.7 KAXE.

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.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Read more at his blog or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”


  1. This subject has always interested me. I grew up in Milwaukee where there was a difference between the north side accent (more German influenced) and the south side (more Polish influence.) I really didn’t notice much of an accent of any sort when I moved to Northern Iowa and later to Minneapolis. I certainly didn’t here what comes out in the Fargo movie. And nobody ever commented on my accent in MN. But once, visiting CA, I was asked if I’m from Canada…because of the way I said the “out” in about. I some how picked up a hint of the eastern Canadian oout sound. Well, I’ve been to eastern Canada and they say ooooout with a dark out sound.

    But on the Range, I’ve heard hints of what you are talking about. One woman I know is from Biwabic and has very clipped speech, for example. I’ve been down in the Mine at Soudan when the old miners were still the guides. They were really hard to understand, and part of that was because of jargon, not just accents.

    I took a trip with a diverse group of people from all across North America and I astonished myself at being able to peg people’s origins. Yet I still don’t think that most of us “up here” talk like the Fargo movie people. Maybe they do in western MN???

  2. Ever single time I travel, I get laughed at for my accent. Especially out east (and look who’s talking, might I add). Even Midwestern friends who’ve moved to California make fun of me. I grew up in Duluth, for goodness sake. It’s not like I was born and raised on some Finnish speaking compound on the Canadian Border. Oh well. On another note, I was interested to see a written form of “I’m’n’a,” which I also say.

  3. When I came to Des Moines, I was mercilessly teased for my accent for the first few weeks of school. When you’re trying to have a serious conversation with someone, and they constantly interrupt you with “don’cha know” “ya betcha” and the dreaded “aboot,” it’s really quite frustrating. It took a while to make friends, about as long as it took the accent to wear off. It returns full force when I go home, however.

  4. Yes, when I first left the Range for Dubuque “about” or “aboot” was my Waterloo. That’s the Canadian influence that we NoMinns live our lives unaware of.

  5. Two weeks ago I was on a plane to the Caribbean, listening to your podcast from the U of M bookstore. While your accent is nothing close to other Rangers, I think it does exist. I noticed it not during your readings but during your Q&A portion – the clipping of words that’s so uniquely Iron Range. (I picked up on it because my Ely-native fiance does the same thing as soon as we get north of Cloquet. He trades the city speak for the “Slovenian-clip”.)

    I “I’m’n’a” ALL THE TIME. Guilty!

  6. Wow, major props for being able to listen to that whole thing all the way to the Q&A! 🙂

    Yes, that’s a good example. When I’m reading or reciting prepared material I usually sanitize the accent but when I go impromptu the accent comes back.

  7. Not to be snippy, but I think yer proper spellings ther are “Yah” and “I’munnah.”

    When I visited my sister in California as a teenager, an AC repairman came while my sister was at work. I asked him if all the houses in southern CA had central AC 9a phenomenon to me), and he said, “Hoses? Whathoses? Are you from Canada?”(and BTW, here in St. Paul we call that “Canadoo”).

  8. Didn’t realize we had a style guide! Great observation on houses/hoses. That’s one of mine as well. Blame Canadoo.

  9. LOL Lindsy

    Unless people have been to Duluth, they think it is a Finnish speaking compound on the Canadian border. Close enough.

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