Friday, February 19, 2021

Yooper Talk

 by Frank Boles

On February 11, Dr. Kathryn Remlinger from Grand Valley State University shared with us her research on Finnish accents in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Yooper Talk was based on her years of linguistic research in the western Upper Peninsula, the “Copper Country.”

Finnish has had a particular influence on speech in the Upper Peninsula because of two unusual characteristics of immigrants from Finland. The first was their language itself. Finnish is unrelated to other European languages. Thus, Finnish speakers could not easily “borrow” parts of their language patterns and apply them to English. Second, unlike most European immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth century, Finns had a very high literacy rate.

Most immigrant groups to the United Sates followed a very similar pattern regarding the loss of their native tongue. The Immigrants, or first generation, spoke the native tongue and would never really master English. They often learned some English words or phrases, enough to get by, but they would never rely on English as their basic way to communicate. Their children, the second generation, would usually be bi-lingual, speaking the native tongue to communicate with their parents, but English the rest of the time. The immigrant’s grandchildren, the third generation, usually only spoke English. Finns, however, because of their unusually high literacy rate, passed that reading skill to their children and grandchildren, and their continued reading of Finnish made the language more long-lasting within their community than most other immigrant tongues.

Dr. Remlinger also made the point that people who speak with an accent, Yooper or otherwise, often face discrimination. She recounted a story of a young woman who almost dropped out of college when a professor asked if anyone in the class was from the Upper Peninsula, and when no one admitted to such an uncouth heritage, breathed a visible sigh of relief, as “those people” always had difficulty with the oral presentation. As a result of this attitude, the student, who was from the Upper Peninsula (but wasn’t about to admit it that day!), felt like her chances of success in the class, and in college, were pretty much zero. Actually, Yooper talk, like most dialects, follows fairly precise rules, and one’s dialect rarely tells much about a person’s capabilities – just a bit about their background.

Finnish was not the only language to influence how Yoopers talk. Perhaps the most unexpected thing Professor Remlinger shared was that the ubiquitous “eh” that often ends a Yooper’s sentence does not come from Finnish. Rather, it most likely came into usage because of the linguistic nature of three other languages that influenced how English is spoken in the UP – Canadian French, Cornish English, and Ojibway.

That fact was a surprise, as was how the word “Yooper” got into the dictionary – a Scrabble game. Back in 2002, some Scrabble players, one a Yooper, got into an argument about whether Yooper was really a word. As Scrabble players do, they turned to the dictionary for a ruling, and “Yooper” wasn’t there. This setback led the defeated player to write the editors of the Merriam Webster dictionary asking that the word be included. They said no. This rejection began a more than decade-long correspondence, with examples of the word being used in printed sources regularly forwarded to the dictionary’s editors as proof that “Yooper” was a real word. Eventually, the editors relented and placed “Yooper” in the 2014 collegiate edition. Among the scrabble players, however, opinion was divided if the editors were really convinced about the validity of the word or if they were just tired of getting letters on the subject.

Our thanks to Dr. Remlinger for an informative and entertaining evening, and to the John and Audrey Cumming Endowment, which made the presentation possible.

A recording of the presentation is available on the Clarke Historical Library website.