Wednesday, January 30, 2013

United States of Languages: Midwest, Part 1

Last week we introduced you to the linguistic diversity of the New England and Mid-Atlantic states. This week, we'll be spending our time in the American heartland covering the Midwest, which isn't even in the west!


It's not just famous for cheese, though we do uphold that if you're not lactose intolerant, cheese is definitely one of the greatest foods imaginable. It does nothing but improve food. Where would the mighty burger be without cheese? We digress...

Mmmm... cheeseburger.
Wisconsin was central to the Bennett Law controversy in the late 1800s. The law, which was passed in 1889, stipulated that English be the vehicular language for education for all subjects in Wisconsin. The German-Americans in the state were strongly against the law. Luckily for them, the law was repealed a couple years later and they were once again free to have German language schools if they desired.

The state has been incredibly diverse since its founding. Over the years, it has been chosen as the home of French fur traders, Cornish miners, and Norwegian farmers, among others. More recently, large Mexican and Hmong populations have moved to the area. Many of these groups still have members who speak their native or ancestral language at home instead of English. Spanish is spoken by 3.4% of Wisconsinites (also affectionately known as "Cheeseheads"), while 1% speak German and .6% speak Hmong. There are also many French and Polish speakers in the state.

English spoken in Wisconsin is a typical Northern accent, similar to that of people in the New England states. However, there are a few words particular to the area. One such word is bubbler, meaning "drinking fountain", which can also be heard in other parts of the Midwest but is not commonly used elsewhere.


The Hoosier State takes its name from the "Land of the Indians", owing to its large number of "Indians", or Native Americans to the more politically correct among us. Unfortunately, most of these indigenous inhabitants were forced to move from the state in the 1800s, so there are few speakers of their languages in the area. Today, the state is more like the "Land Without Indians", with only a few small settlements that are generally unrecognized by the government. 

The Hoosier nickname has its origins as a derogatory term that people from the South used to refer to "country bumpkins", but they've clearly come to embrace it since it's their official state demonym instead of Indianians. Admittedly, "Indianians" is a bit of an awkward name to pronounce.

The linguistic composition of the state isn't quite as diverse as some of the other Midwestern states. The main language is of course English, with just over 3% of the population speaking Spanish. Languages such as Chinese and German are also spoken by small minorities.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

We know, it looks like a giant mitten, Upper Peninsula excluded. Over 6% of Michiganders are foreign-born... perhaps the mitten waved to them from the map and enticed them to brave the cold winters! In any case, Michigan has the largest Dutch, Finnish and Macedonian populations in the country. There's also a large Arab community, with immigrants from places such as Lebanon and Yemen. Many came to the state in the 1920s to work in the automobile industry.

As usual, Spanish is the second most popular language in the state, with 2.7% of the population speaking it at home. Arabic comes in second, with .8%, followed by German and Polish. There are also good numbers of Tagalog and Vietnamese speakers.

In case you were wondering, the name Michigan comes from Ojibwa, a Native American language. Their word mishigamaa, meaning "large water" or "large lake" was used by the French when naming the state, which is obviously apt given that it borders four of the five Great Lakes!


The Buckeye State is linguistically similar to its neighbor, Indiana. Only 4.1% of its population is foreign born, though more of these immigrants are from Asia as opposed to the more common Europe or South America. The majority of people in Ohio speak English, but Spanish, Italian, Russian, and Hungarian speakers can be found, among other languages.

English spoken in the state varies depending on where you are. People near Lake Erie tend to speak like New Yorkers, while rural Ohioans speak like Pennsylvanians, and southern citizens speak more like they do in the South.

Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower,
the tallest building in the United States.

Much of the linguistic diversity of Illinois is due to Chicago, the third most populous state in the U.S., whose metropolitan area contains 65% of Illinoisans. Nearly 14% of the population in the state is foreign-born, with people coming from nearly everywhere on the globe. Only four-fifths of Illinois citizens speak English at home. More than one in ten speak Spanish, while 1.6% speak Polish. However, especially in Chicago, you're likely to find small populations who speak any number of other languages, from Urdu to Gujarati.

Illinois English draws from the states around it, and so it is a mix between the Northern and Midwest accents, which admittedly are not so different from each other. It all comes down to pronunciation of vowels and a few lexical curiosities here and there, but in general Illinoisans are thought to have a higher /æ/ pronunciation than other areas. They're occasionally mocked by people from other states when they pronounce words like "backpack" in a way that sounds particularly nasal and duck-like, unfortunately.

We've only covered half of the Midwest so far, so check back tomorrow for more!