Don't say a word

Why Minnesotans can't find a good bagel, and other bigoted observations on diphthongs gone wrong

Having spent 14 years--that is, my entire adult life--as a resident of the state of Minnesota, I think I can safely say that while I like Minnesotans plenty, I can barely stand the way they talk. Normally I'd say "we": I live here; I work here; I no longer belong anyplace else. I've gotten used to the word "pop," which has the goofy virtue of making everyone seem like a little leaguer. And I recognize that "come with"--like the South's "y'all"--serves an identifiable purpose in human communication.

But I cannot own the awful things you people do to English vowels. The accent?it is either charmless or monstrous. The reason no one in Minnesota has ever eaten a good bagel is because the word itself does not exist. (I have no idea how to format a schwa with this blog software, but I can say definitively that "beggl" is not acceptable.) I suspect the reason Minnesotans, alone among Americans, picked Mondale over Reagan owes to the fact they couldn't pronounce the Gipper's name. (It's more like "Raygun" than "reggn" or "raggn"--where the "a" sound rhymes with "rat." This pronunciation phenomenon is a variant on what linguists term the "northern shift.")

Accents can be a wondrous thing, suggesting the cultural texture of a nation that otherwise seems to have been homogenized by retail chains and monolithic media. I recently returned from a road trip through the Chesapeake, where I encountered one of the most bizarre regional accents I've ever heard. I can barely begin to describe it: Everyday vowel sounds become diphthongs. Diphthongs become time-travel experiments to the Elizabethan age. Try saying the word "water" while making an exaggerated O with your mouth and pronouncing the ska exclamation "Oi!" and you may begin to have a faint idea what's going on.

I suspect this Delmarva accent is dying out, like my grandmother's old-style Bronxese, in which the word "toilet" came out like "terlit." (It's a word I heard too often, as my grandmother held fiercely to the belief that children could not safely flush by themselves.)

Immigrants to Minnesota have an innate sense that something is not OK with the way people here talk. But the results of the Dialect Survey conducted online by professor Bert Vaux (formerly of Harvard, now at Wisconsin) codify what's so offensive to the ear. Native Minnesotans, naturally, will appreciate the opportunity to heap scorn on the linguistic transgressions committed by people on the Eastern seaboard. I don't begrudge them that right, but I do hope in my heart that they know they are wrong, wrong, wrong.


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