Thursday, January 31, 2013

United States of Languages: Midwest, Part 2

As we continue on our linguistic journey through the US there's still a ton of Midwestern states left to cover. We'll be following on from yesterday's look at the linguistic diversity of the Midwest with the remaining states in the Midwest. Let's get to it!


Busch Stadium, home of St. Louis Cardinals baseball.
The "Show-Me State" is named after the Missouri River which runs through the region, which was in turn named after the Missouri Indian tribe. The indigenous group was known as the ouemessourita, which meant "those who have dugout canoes". There's still no agreement on the proper pronunciation of the name though, even within the state itself. The main disputes involve the pronunciation of the two i's in the word and generally come down to "Missour-ee" versus "Missour-uh". (Definitely "Missour-ee".)

Almost all Missourians speak English. Just over 2% of the population speaks Spanish, mainly in communities in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas. Missouri is also home to Missouri French, a nearly extinct French dialect. Its few remaining speakers, mainly elderly, are descendants of early French settlers that refer to themselves as Créoles. While the dialect is not likely to survive, it was once widely spoken in the area and was one of three major French dialects used in the United States.

North Dakota

Despite being one of the larger states, it has one of the smallest populations, with only 700,000 citizens. Most settlers who came to North Dakota were farmers looking to make a life from the land. The majority came from Great Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia. They had some great land to grow crops on, but starting in the 1920s, the population began to decrease, especially due to young people moving away. Nowadays, 2.5% of the population speaks German at home and a few Norwegian words have been adopted by North Dakotans over the years as well. 

North Dakota is also home to a few Native American tribes, including the Sioux. The Sioux language, also known as Dakota and Lakota, is spoken by an estimated 33,000 people in the U.S. and Canada and is the fifth most spoken indigenous language in the two countries. However, the number of speakers is decreasing over time as young people begin to prefer to speak English instead of their tribal language. 

The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. All the detail
is corn and other grains and is redesigned once a year.
South Dakota

Pretty much everything we said about North Dakota applies to South Dakota, though it has a slightly larger population than its northern neighbor. South Dakota has the third-highest proportion of Native Americans in the United States. It's also home to more speakers of the Sioux language due its large Indian reservations. Sadly, most of these tribes are impoverished and don't always get the help they need from the government.

South Dakota also has the largest population of Hutterites in the United States. Hutterites are a religious group that believe in absolute pacifism and a "community of goods", meaning that all property in the colony is owned by everyone. Like the Amish, the Hutterites have their own dialect of German called Hutterite German or Hutterisch. The group also uses standard German for religious activities and English in school.


Often considered to be one of the most boring U.S. states to drive across (along with Kansas) since it's prairie as far as the eye can see, Nebraska means "flat water" in the language of the Otoe tribe. The "flat water" refers to the Platte River, which flows across the middle of the state. 

There are several indigenous tribes still living in the area, including the Omaha and the Ponca. The two groups share a Siouan language called Omaha-Ponca, though they speak different dialects, and as usual, claim that their linguistic differences are enough to consider them to be different languages. Either way, the language is nearly extinct, with fewer than 100 speakers. 

Dorothy Gale is from The Wizard of Oz, of course!

Dorothy Gale's home state isn't as linguistically diverse as many others, but there are some speakers of languages besides English. Most recent immigrants have come from Mexico, and 5.5% of the population speaks Spanish. There are also small communities of Vietnamese and Chinese speakers in the state. A few Native American tribes live in the state as well, but their languages are all extremely endangered. 


The "Land of 10,000 Lakes" is named for the Dakota word for "sky-tinted water". Those seem like pretty flattering names to us! The English spoken in Minnesota is the typical Northern accent, but generally differs from other areas with its bits of Scandinavian intonation. Sometimes Minnesotans raise or lower their pitch in ways that other Americans find odd, especially when pronouncing the name of their state. 

Nearly 3% of Minnesotans speak Spanish, while almost 1% speak the Hmong language. There are also several Native American tribes living in the state, most of which speak Ojibwe, also known as Chippewa. If all the Ojibwe dialects throughout the U.S. and Canada are combined, there are over 50,000 speakers of the language. 


We've clearly left the best Midwestern state for last. The Hawkeye State takes its name from the Ioway people, a Native American tribe that inhabited the state when European settlers first arrived. The state is home to the Iowa caucuses which give its citizens the first opportunity to determine the presidential candidates in each election, as well as one of the finest State Fairs in the country, which gives its citizens access to farm animals, art projects, life-size cows sculpted from butter, and the finest in deep-fried delicacies. 

American Gothic by Grant Wood shows
the artist's idea of who would live in
this real house in rural Iowa.
Spanish is spoken by about 3% of Iowans, followed by about 17,000 German speakers. Many of these German speakers are Amish or Mennonite, and speak dialects known as Amana German and Pennsylvania Dutch.

The indigenous Meskwaki language is also spoken by the Meskwaki Indians in the state. Most of its speakers are elderly, but the tribe is making an effort to revive the language. The tribal school provides bilingual education for the children, and the Meskwaki Sewing Project pairs older women who speak the language with younger non-speakers to teach them to sew traditional clothing and practice their language. 

The majority of Iowans speak English in an accent that is classified as "General American", which is the accent that is used in most American movies, television, and music. If you want to learn to speak as close to standard American English as you can get, then visit Iowa!

Next week we'll be looking at the linguistic diversity of the South, y'all!