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Some Yoopers fear colorful dialect may be fading

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Holy whah! Some Yoopers fear colorful dialect may be fading

Saturday, February 21, 2004



HOUGHTON -- Dan Junttila is a proud Yooper. So proud that he teaches a course at the local middle school on the history and culture of his beloved Upper Peninsula.

So he would mourn if one of the most notable characteristics of the U.P. -- dat colorful way of talkin' dey got up dere -- were to fade away?

"I love the dialect," said Junttila, 51, who was born and bred in the western U.P.'s mining and logging country.

"Preserving our heritage and our culture, what could ever be wrong with that? Seems to be such an effort to get everybody to melt together in such a way that we'll all lose any semblance of self or identity."

Plenty of Yoopers, as residents of the Upper Peninsula are fondly known, take pride in their distinctive accents and quirky colloquialisms. "Holy whah!" for example, is the Yooper equivalent of "Holy cow!" or a similar exclamation.

But some fear the dialect is declining and eventually could disappear. They point to an increasingly mobile society, the passing of immigrant generations whose native languages shaped the Yooper tongue and the homogenizing influence of mass culture and media.

"It's partly the transplants -- people coming here from all over the country," said Dan Dulong, 57, a meat cutter from Hancock, a former mining town home to many descendants of Finnish immigrants.

Last December, the U.P.'s four state representatives sponsored a resolution to establish Yoopers' dialect as the "official state dialect."

It describes the dialect as "endangered ... on the verge of vanishing forever," and argues that preserving it would "maintain a tie to our multicultural heritage."

Rep. Rich Brown, D-Bessemer, acknowledged that the measure is largely symbolic. A ninth-grader proposed it to the Legislative Civics Commission, a group of lawmakers who visit schools to discuss state government.

Still, Brown said, keeping the Yooper dialect alive is a worthy cause. "It is kind of a trademark," he said.

Elizabeth Norton, the student at Traverse City's East Junior High School who crafted the resolution, said her research turned up scholarly papers that described Yooper talk as fading.

"If we lose that, we'll lose part of what makes us unique as a state," she said.

Even a troll -- that is, anyone residing in the Lower Peninsula -- can appreciate how sad it would be if Yooper dialect went the way of the dodo.

But is there really anything to worry about? Some said rumors of the demise are greatly exaggerated.

"It's changing, but it's not dying," said Kathryn Remlinger, an associate professor at Grand Valley State University who has studied U.P. speech. "Language is always changing."

And actually, she added, there is no single Yooper dialect. What you hear depends on where in the peninsula you are, and on the speaker's age and social class. Many U.P. residents sound like typical Midwesterners.

Accents are thicker in rural areas, which are less exposed to outside influences, and among older people who are only a generation or two removed from immigrant ancestors, Remlinger said.

The Yooper dialect is a linguistic melting pot, featuring pronunciations and idiomatic words and phrases rooted in the languages of European settlers and American Indians.

French explorers arrived in the 1600s and made their mark. But the stereotypical U.P. dialect owes more to the wave of immigration during the copper and iron ore mining rush two centuries later.

People came primarily from Finland and the Cornwall region of western England, but also from Sweden, Poland, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. As the immigrants and their children learned English, their heavily accented pronunciations helped form the regional dialect.

In the "Copper Country" of the northwestern U.P., Finnish mining families mostly kept to themselves, preserving their native tongue for several generations.

"There were Finnish newspapers, churches, intermarriage -- the kinds of things that keep communities together," said Victoria Bergvall, associate professor of linguistics at Michigan Tech University in Houghton.

Many of the most commonly known "Yooperisms" show the Finnish influence, such as the substitution of a "d" sound for "th," as in "dere" instead of "there" or "dem" instead of "them."

But she said the familiar Yooper practice of ending sentences with "eh" ("Have a nice, day, eh") probably comes from the French "hein," a word French Canadians often tack onto sentences.

Alas, even those old standards may not last forever. Laura Walikainen, a student of Bergvall's at Michigan Tech, reported to a linguistics conference last fall that the younger generation is more apt to end sentences with "hey" than "eh."

The 21-year-old Walikainen, a lifelong Copper Country resident with a barely noticeable accent, takes pride in Yooper dialect but admits she isn't immune to social pressures at college to avoid being too distinctive.

"The way you talk is so important -- it's how you're judged," she said.

Concerns that U.P. speech makes one sound "like a hick" arise from long-standing stereotypes of Yoopers as ignorant and uncultured, Remlinger said. The word "Yooper" itself once was viewed as derogatory.

Many young adults who leave the area for school or careers suppress their accents to avoid ridicule, she said.

"People aren't aware of how damaging linguistic prejudices can be -- not just to self-esteem, but in the way they contribute to the losing of a culture," Remlinger said.

Yet there's reason for hope, she added. A growing sense of ethnic identity and sense of place is actually strengthening many regional dialects. And most linguists believe the watering-down effects of radio and television are limited.

"There are a lot of people who darn well want to keep speaking Yooper and they really don't care what anyone thinks," said Junttila, the middle school teacher, who encourages students in his U.P. Topics class to appreciate their roots.

"We have an undying Yooper belief, a kind of stubbornness, that says something that was once so good and comfortable must be worth holding on to," Junttila said. "Not all change is good."

When filmmaker Jeff Daniels made "Escanaba in da Moonlight," an offbeat 2001 comedy larded with U.P. stereotypes and exaggerated renderings of the dialect, some complained it was demeaning. But other Yoopers took it in stride, considering it a celebration of the region's traditions.

"We're used to all the jokes," said Ken Myllyla, 71, of Escanaba, a third-generation Finn. He and a couple of buddies gave Daniels and his crew some tips on Yooper talk as they produced the film. "Mostly they just had us talk to each other while they listened," Myllyla said.

"People from lower Michigan used to call us hicks and that stuck in our craw," said Jim DeCaire of Ishpeming, leader of the comedy troupe Da Yoopers. "Now there's a love affair with the Upper Peninsula. Everybody wants to be a Yooper."



Here are a few "Yooperisms" provided by Dan Junttila, a teacher from Houghton; Jim DeCaire, the author of "Da Yoopers Glossary," and Kathryn Remlinger of Grand Valley State University:

  • dem (them)

  • brudder (brother)

  • smelt (past tense of "smell," also a small Great Lakes fish that spawns in U.P. rivers)

  • sisu (Finnish word meaning intestinal fortitude or toughness, for which Yoopers pride themselves)

  • hafta (have to)

  • tirsty (thirsty)

  • teek (thick, as in ice)

  • udder (other)

  • side by each (side by side)

  • nort (opposite of sout)

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