Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Marvelling at the Minnesotan Accent

I'm not a huge film fan; an hour and a half is usually too long to keep my attention. However, a few months ago I started watching Fargo, the 1996 Coen brothers film. Unfortunately, I had only watched 30 minutes before I had to do something else and forgot to go back to it.

On Monday, I finally returned to the film, re-watching the first 30 minutes and inevitably watching the rest. Before I knew it, Netflix was suggesting that I watch the TV series of the same name that aired last year. I had already received tonnes of recommendations from friends, so after enjoying the film, I was straight onto the series and binge-watched four episodes. While both feature black comedy, which I love, they also sparked my interest in Minnesotan English, which I'll just fondly call Minnesotan from now on.

A beautiful view of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
My interest in Minnesotan was actually piqued during a visit to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and Saint Paul) in the spring of 2012, when I fell in love with the accent. This led me to find out more about this unique and fascinating accent and where it came from.

While native Minnesotans may tell me that different accents and dialects can be found across the state, today I'd like to just discuss the accent in a general sense, without over-complicating things but still trying to gain sufficient insights into what it's all about.

Many of the accent's qualities are similar to those of most other English-language accents found throughout North America, but it's the accent's differences that I find so interesting. These differences include monophthongization, a process whereby phonemes that are regularly pronounced as diphthongs become a singular and "pure" vowel.

It's widely believed that many of the accent's traits originate from the area's historic immigration patterns, which have had a lasting influence on many accents in North American English. Many of the people currently living in Minnesota are descendants of Scandinavian and Germanic peoples, notably speakers of Norwegian and German. While this is certainly plausible, it has also been suggested that British accents might be responsible for some traits, as similar effects have been noted in Canadian English.

A postcard picture of the Second Fort Snelling Bridge, Minnesota.
There have also been suggestions that there are traces of a pitch accent in Minnesotan. A pitch accent uses different pitches for certain syllables in order to distinguish words. This is a trait that is also shared with a number of Scandinavian languages, particularly Norwegian and Swedish.

The main issue with pinpointing the origins behind the accent is a lack of information. Early settlers didn't spend a whole lot of time making records for the purpose of linguistic analysis since they were probably too preoccupied with surviving the area's trying winters and making sure that their crops didn't die.

While I've heard accounts that the accents in Fargo (both the film and series) are heavily exaggerated, I could still happily listen to them all day. I've also heard that the intense friendliness is exaggerated, though my experiences in Minnesota and the Midwest certainly don't support this.

How do you feel about the Minnesotan accent? Do you love it or hate it? Is there another US accent that you prefer? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.