Book Review: How to Speak Midwestern by Edward McClelland (4/5)

13 Jul

One of my undergraduate degrees is in Spanish which involved quite a few classes on linguistics and phonology. And I loved it! I wish it was common to find a job in linguistics but without a PhD, it wasn’t practical. When I saw that my library was hosting Edward McClelland a few years ago, I was excited to hear him talk about accents throughout the Midwest where I’ve lived my entire life. I was curious to know: Do I have an accent? (Spoiler, yes)

Cover image via Amazon

How to Speak Midwestern by Edward McClelland

Summary from Amazon:

Pittsburgh toilet, squeaky cheese, city chicken, shampoo banana, and Chevy in the Hole are all phrases that are familiar to Midwesterners but sound foreign to anyone living outside the region. This book explains not only what Midwesterners say but also how and why they say it and covers such topics as: the causes of the Northern cities vowel shift, why the accents in Fargo miss the nasality that’s a hallmark of Minnesota speech, and why Chicagoans talk more like people from Buffalo than their next-door neighbors in Wisconsin. Readers from the Midwest will have a better understanding of why they talk the way they do, and readers who are not from the Midwest will know exactly what to say the next time someone ends a sentence with “eh?”.

This book wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I was looking for a bit more when it came to pronunciation, which part of this book offered. The first half of it takes you through the three dialectal regions of the Midwest and talks about how vowel pronunciation shifted through the regions as they were populated by different immigrant groups. It talks about the effects of mass media, migration, and industrialization. However, half the book was a glossary of regional terms heard in different cities, states, and areas, that had nothing to do with pronunciation. A lot of it had to do with local cuisine. Granted, I laughed a lot and found it amusing, but it wasn’t what I was looking for in the book and it left me a little disappointed.

Edward McClelland
Image via Amazon

I was happy to be able to laugh at myself while reading this. I’m a life-long Michigander and reading about McClelland’s Yooper roommate (someone from Michigan’s Upper Penninsula, UP) and how the opposite of ‘Up North’ is ‘Down State’ had me giggling. I laughed even more at the mentions of Cincinnati, where a lot of my family lives. I had my husband realizing that my Grandma’s ‘funny’ habit of saying ‘Please?’ when she didn’t understand someone and wants them to repeat themself is due to the translation of the German word ‘bitte’ used in this context and the area’s heavy German population.

I was much more interested in the vowel shifts and movements of pronunciations around the Midwest than I was in the glossary. I studied regional dialects in Spanish and I was hoping for a bit more of a linguistic evaluation of the speech patterns, but I was still intrigued. It was interesting to hear how roadways and waterways played such a strong role in the development of regional speech

As I’ve said, the glossary was a bit of a disappointment. It was a lot longer than I was anticipating, over half the book. While it was amusing, I haven’t spent a long time in many of the areas covered or speaking with people from them so I didn’t really have an interest in any of the terms being explained to me.

Writer’s Takeaway: This book had a good mix of history, research, and personal stories. I liked when McClelland would introduce sentences he heard from people he met. His Yooper roommate, for example, saying “So, ah, I gotta take a shore and then I’ll be over to your hoase in about an oar, eh.” He recognizes in the Acknowledgements how many people he spoke to from these regions to nail down the glossary and hear examples of the different accents. I thought that was a great touch.

This book was enjoyable if not quite the researched phonetics book I was hoping for. Four out of Five Stars

Until next time, write on.

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