Regional dialects reflect history, culture
English may be the dominant language spoken throughout the United States, but that doesn’t mean we all speak the same dialect. Each region of the country has many words and phrases of its own.
For example, Joan Hall, editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English, said every region of the United States has a different name for the strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk. Many Midwesterners call it a boulevard, while other areas use the terms: parking, parking strip, terrace or tree lawn.
“It’s often true that the language differences that are apparent from one region to another reflect pretty directly the immigration patterns to those parts of the country,” she said. “In the Upper Midwest, where we have lots of Germans and Swedes and Poles, many of the words reflect those people and very often they happen to be food words.”
She said lutefisk, lefse and krumkake are popular where Norwegians settled. Whereas, limpa bread is common among the Swedish areas of the Midwest, and sauerkraut and knoephla are found in German areas.
Although the immigration happened many, many years ago, a lot of those words are still used today. Hall said she believes it’s because they are intimately connected to who we are.
“The things we learn from our families become very engrained in a different way than the words we learn from our teachers,” she said.
Doug Munski, UND professor of geography, added, “One of the key ways we transmit our culture is through language.”
Some of the words define things found only in the specific region. For example: snirt, a mixture of snow and dirt, and hotdish, a Midwestern meal consisting of a potato, meat, vegetable and sauce. While other words and phrases are just replacements or alternatives for common words.
For instance, in the Midwest it’s common to refer to someone of Norwegian descent as a Norski, Hall said. It’s also more common to say “Yeah,” as opposed to “Yes,” which she said comes from a German, Danish and Norwegian background.
The term “pop” is also Midwestern. On either coast, the preferred term for the beverage is “soda.” And, in the south, they call it “Coke.”
Other common Midwestern phrases include “you betcha,” “don’t cha know” and “oofta.”
Hall said when looking at different dialects, the borders are very fuzzy because immigration was not clearly defined and people moved around.
“You can’t really talk about the language of a state, and you can’t really define a region with a very sharp line,” she said.
And while the lines are becoming even more blurred, and many believe that American English is becoming homogenized, Hall said, “There are still lots and lots of regional words and phrases, and I don’t think that’s going to change.”
Upper Midwestern Dictionary
- Boulevard: The strip of grass between a street and sidewalk. Also known as parking strip, terrace or tree lawn.
- Coulee: A depression between hills.
- Don’t cha know: A common phrase used to express understood agreement.
- Flickertail: A ground squirrel.
- Hotdish: A Midwest meal consisting of a potato, meat, vegetable and sauce, typically baked and served in a pan.
- Julebukk: A Norwegian tradition in which people dress in costume between Christmas and New Year’s and go door-to-door seeking treats.
- Knoephla: A German soup with dumplings.
- Krumkake: A Norwegian waffle cookie made of flour, butter, eggs, sugar and cream.
- Lefse: A soft Norwegian flatbread made of flour, cream and lard.
- Limpa: A Swedish rye bread flavored with molasses, anise and orange peel.
- Lutefisk: A traditional Scandinavian dish consisting of dried/salted whitefish and lye.
- Norski: A term used to refer to a person of Norwegian descent.
- Oofta: An expression used to convey surprise or exhaustion.
- Pom-pom-pullaway: A children’s game of tag in which players must run from one side of the playing field to the other without getting tagged.
- Sauerkraut: Finely chopped cabbage pickled in brine.
- Slush burger: A loose meat sandwich. Also known as a sloppy Joe or tavern.
- Snirt: A mixture of snow and dirt.
- You betcha: An expression used to express agreement.