How to Speak Midwestern


Edward McClelland will speak about his new book, How To Speak Midwestern, in a Society of Midland Authors program on Tuesday, Feb. 14, at the Cliff Dwellers Club, 200 S. Michigan Ave., 22nd floor, Chicago. McClelland will speak at 7 p.m. A social hour, with complimentary snacks and a cash bar, begins at 6 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. No advance registration is required.

Ted answered questions from the Society of Midland Authors’ newsletter, Literary License:

Literary License: Where did Midwesterners get the idea they don’t speak with an accent?

McClelland: In the 1920s, the nation’s leading pronunciation expert was John S. Kenyon, a philologist at Ohio’s Hiram College. Kenyon was the author of American Pronunciation and A Pronouncing Dictionary of American English and the pronunciation editor of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language. Kenyon championed rhoticity, the pronunciation of “r”s wherever they appear in words. He also favored pronouncing “not” like “naht,” instead of “nawt.” These were both features of the Inland North speech Kenyon heard in northeastern Ohio.

Kenyon’s pronunciation standards influenced James F. Bender, author of the NBC Handbook of Pronunciation. The most oft-heard newscasters of the World War II era – Lowell Thomas, H.V. Kaltenborn and Edward R. Murrow – pronounced all their r’s, as Kenyon would have advised.

Literary License: How did you research this book?

McClelland: Some of it came from knowledge I picked up when I wrote my previous books about the Midwest, The Third Coast and Nothin’ But Blue Skies. I spent a week in Brainerd, Minnesota, ice fishing, curling, snowmobiling and skiing, and I took a road trip through Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis, sampling regional delicacies such as beef on weck, Garbage Plate, chipped chopped ham and goetta. I also visited Big Ten bars in Chicago and talked to graduates of Midwestern colleges.

Literary License:  Were there any surprises as you learned more about Midwestern speech?

McClelland: I was surprised to learn that the Inland North accent, which is spoken in Chicago, has its roots in western New England. The three dialect regions all correspond to patterns of westward migration. Inland North, which is spoken in the lower Great Lakes, from Rochester to Milwaukee, was spread by Yankees from Vermont, New York and Connecticut. Midland, spoken from Pittsburgh to Kansas, is a legacy of Scots-Irish who disembarked in Baltimore and Philadelphia, and still contains constructions and phrases that can be traced back to Ulster, such as “needs worshed” and “run” for a stream. North Central — the so-called “Fargo Accent” — was developed by German and Scandinavian immigrants. The phrase “come with” is a transliteration of the German “kommt mit.” Also that accents are always changing. Every generation has its own sound. “Dese, dem and dose” is heard less often among Chicago Millennials than it was among Baby Boomers — it was stigmatized by the Saturday Night Live “Superfans” sketch. And I was very surprised to learn that in Pittsburgh, “Kennywood’s open” means “your fly’s unzipped.”

Literary License: Are there authors who’ve captured Midwestern accents in their writing?

McClelland: Midwestern speech conforms pretty closely to spelling — we pronounce all our r’s, unlike people on the East Coast, so the Midwest hasn’t been the subject of dialect writing. But I would say that Ernest Hemingway captured Midwestern taciturnity very well in his Nick Adams stories, both in his dialogue and style of writing. So did Sinclair Lewis, in Main Street. Garrison Keillor does a good job with Midwestern dialect in his Lake Wobegon books.

Literary License: What’s your next book?

McClelland: I want to write about Detroit during the War of 1812 — another Midwestern topic. It was the only time an American city was occupied by a foreign army. My agent is seeking a publisher. I’m also open to expanding How to Speak Midwestern to cover the entire United States and Canada.