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"Northwoods" phrases

‘Fargo’ show again puts spotlight on speech traced to Scandinavian roots

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FARGO - In 1996, the Coen brothers first exposed the rest of the country to the “Northwoods” accent with their cult classic “Fargo.”

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Now FX’s new miniseries of the same name will once again put the spotlight on our distinct way of speaking when it premieres on Tuesday.

Ah geez.

It’s hard to tell from the show’s teasers how well Brit Martin Freeman and Arkansas-born Billy Bob Thornton imitate Upper Midwest speech patterns.

But North Dakota State University linguist Bruce Maylath wants viewers to know that what they’re hearing isn’t necessarily the “Fargo” accent. It’s a dialect characteristic of a much broader region than the state’s largest city.

“There aren’t nearly as many pronunciation differences or dialect differences from Ohio, particularly western Ohio, all the way out to California and Washington state,” he says.

One of those differences, in North Dakota and Minnesota, is what’s referred to as the “pure ‘o.’ ”

“We’re one of just two places in the English-speaking world where there’s a pure ‘o’ instead of a glide to the ‘ooh’ sound,” Maylath says. (The other, strangely enough, is Charleston, S.C.)

Here, instead of “dawg” and “lawg” for dog and log, it’s “dahg” and “lahg.”

“It’s hard for me when they’re saying the names ‘Don’ and ‘Dawn’ because they’re pronouncing them the same,” says Maylath, who’s been here for almost seven years and lived in the Twin Cities for 20 years before that.

It’s that pure “o” that gets Krista Reiner recognized as a North Dakotan.

“I’m not somebody who says, ‘Oh, you betcha’ or ‘Uff da,’ but it’s the long vowel sounds that come out wherever I am. It’s just part of who I am and how I’ve been raised,” she says.

The 34-year-old woman moved to Las Vegas three and a half years ago for a job as a marketing manager for a gaming software company, but she hasn’t lost her way of speaking, nor does she plan to.

“I honestly hope I always have it,” she says. “I might not be in North Dakota anymore, but I’m always going to be a North Dakota girl.”

It’s a regular occurrence for her colleagues to stop her mid-conversation to point out something she said, like “bag,” “roof” or “car,” but they don’t mean to make her feel uncomfortable about it.

“I think they find it more endearing than anything,” she says.

Well, not everyone finds it charming.

Josh Ross-Waldman, a 37-year-old man who recently moved here from the Big Apple for a job at Sanford and to be close to family, is determined not to lose his “non-descript New York accent.”

His brother, however, who moved here in 2000, has picked up the “ohs” and “yahs” typical of the area. Ross-Waldman says hearing his brother’s speech pattern morph into the Northwoods accent was far more noticeable than William H. Macy’s in the Coen brothers movie.

“It was a little funny to me, if I’m being honest, hearing someone I’d known for so long suddenly speaking this way,” he says.

That’s just how we talk, doncha know.

NDSU’s Maylath says most of our unique vernacular can be traced to Germanic languages Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. With such a large Scandinavian population settling in North Dakota and Minnesota, leftover turns of phrase were bound to stick.

One of the more grammatically aggravating tendencies is to swap “lend” and “borrow.”

In Norwegian, Maylath explains, “låne til” means to “loan to,” and if you borrow something from someone, you “låne fra,” which sounds like “loan from.”

There’s more.

In German, “bargen” means to lend, but if you trace it back far enough, it has the same roots as the English “borrow,” so for German immigrants, it was confusing.

“They can’t tell whether they’re borrowing or loaning! To them, the words mean the same thing,” Maylath says.

Oh that’s a good point there then.

Even the “then” at the end of sentences comes from Scandinavia.

“If you listen to Garrison Keillor’s ‘Prairie Home Companion,’ you’ll hear the actors put ‘then’ at the end of sentences. That’s just a direct influence from adding the word ‘da’ at the end of sentences in Norwegian or Swedish or Danish,” he says.

Oh fer funny.

When Maylath’s students researched the “oh fer” construction for one of his classes, they found that it’s more common among women.

It’s one of Reiner’s leftover North Dakota-isms.

After she was thanked for doing an interview, she responded enthusiastically and without hesitation, “Oh fer sure!”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590

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Meredith Holt
Meredith Holt is a Forum features reporter who writes a twice-monthly column on body image, weight loss (and gain), health and fitness. Her topics of interest include mental health, relationships and women's issues. She also does page design and copy editing, which she did for six years prior to joining the features staff in March 2012.
(701) 241-5590
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