Ya we talk ‘dat way, ‘specially up on da Raynch

Iron Range newsThe St. Paul Pioneer Press led its Sunday edition with an introspective look at a topic that is usually the first thing people notice about Minnesotans, but that Minnesotans pretend doesn’t exist: our accent.

What struck me as interesting was that a significant portion of Andy Rathbun’s feature was dedicated not only to the Minnesota accent, but the unique sub-accent found here on Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range:

One pocket of Minnesota known for having its own distinct dialect features is the Iron Range.

Beginning in the late 19th century, an influx of immigrants coming from countries such as Croatia, England, Slovenia and, most of all, Finland came to the area to work the newly established iron ore mines in northeastern Minnesota, said Sara Schmelzer Loss, an Iron Range native and visiting assistant professor of linguistics at Oklahoma State University.

“You had all these speakers of different native languages living in the same communities and working together,” Loss said. “It was a really unique situation that the rest of Minnesota didn’t have.”

That helped create different features of speech over time. One instance of this can be heard in Iron Range speakers sometimes pronouncing certain consonants differently. The second “j” sound in “judge,” for example, might sound more like a “ch” — a feature called “devoicing,” Loss said, adding that it’s a distinction she sometimes hears in her own speech.

But like all regional accents, the increased power of mass media to homogenize the way we talk is taking its toll on the Iron Range variation:

Loss herself feels a connection to the Iron Range, she said, adding that when she calls her parents or grandparents who live there, she can hear herself for about an hour afterward sounding much more like an Iron Ranger than just a normal Minnesotan.

It would be a shame, Loss said, if she were to lose those features.

Some features of speech on the Iron Range are being lost as people become more mobile and interact with others outside the community, Loss said, adding that the more interaction someone has with Twin Cities speakers, for instance, the more he or she will sound like them.

Still, other dialectic touches are coming, even as old ones fade away. The story is worth a read.

Language is an ever changing thing, which is the topic of my annual top words of the year column next Sunday.

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