Skip to comments.Holy whah! Some Yoopers fear colorful dialect may be fading
Posted on 02/21/2004 9:43:03 PM PST by Dan from Michigan
Holy whah! Some Yoopers fear colorful dialect may be fading
By JOHN FLESHER
The Associated Press
2/21/2004, 7:50 a.m. ET
HOUGHTON, Mich. (AP) 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 da U.P. dat colorful way of talkin' dey got up dere were to fade away, eh? Holy whah!
"I love the dialect," says the 51-year-old Junttila, 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 Upper Peninsula's four state representatives sponsored a resolution to establish Yooper as the "official state dialect."
It describes Yooper 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 the measure is largely symbolic. It was proposed by a ninth-grader 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 had 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 lower Michigan (below the Mackinac Bridge, which links the two peninsulas) can appreciate how sad it would be if Yooper dialect went da way of da dodo.
But is there really anything to worry about? Some say rumors of the demise of U.P. dialect 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 Upper Peninsula speech. "Language is always changing."
Actually, she added, there is no single Yooper dialect. What you hear depends on where in the peninsula you are, and on the age and social class of the speaker. 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 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 Europeans who settled in the Upper Peninsula and of native Indians.
French explorers arrived in the 1600s and made their mark. But the stereotypical U.P. dialect owes more to the immigration wave 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 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."
Another example: the pronunciation of "yeah" as "yah," which Remlinger traces to the Finnish equivalent: "joo."
But she says 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 his "U.P. Topics" students to appreciate their roots.
During a recent class, the youngsters read about the Cornish pasty, a meat-and-vegetable turnover that was a luncheon staple during the mining era and remains popular.
"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."
I hope it's not as tough to eat as it was tough to kill?
Why is the "Upper Peninsula" a part of Michigan? If you look at a map, it should be part of Wisconsin.
There still are. My late mother-in-law was a Yooper who laced every sentence with 'eh.' My son would go visit his grandparents in Ann Arbor each summer, and then they would caravan back to the greatgrandma's farm in the UP for a few weeks.
The folks up there are Finnish Apostolic Lutheran w/a low tolerance for a lot of worldliness like drinking and card playing, tho getting the whole family naked in the sauna is not a problem.
These people haven't met a food product that can't be improved by adding butter or cheese. When my son and I came up for my husband's funeral, the first thing my MIL did was give us a bag of cheese to take back to the hotel. : ) To heck w/the funeral - let's eat some cheese.
Was impressed by ... how a Pasty (PAH-sty) sticks to one's ribs.
For years my late husband wanted to start making pasties on a commercial basis (starting in my kitchen, of course). He thought he would be bringing civilization to the east coast. Between that and trying to get me to make some Scandinavian cheese his grandma used to make, we had some interesting arguments our first years of marriage.
demaning nothin,that movie was great!
The feds jumped in and Michigan won it and got the UP, while Ohio lost and was forced to keep Toledo.
Stay Safe Dan !
The first time I tried to make pasties (from my non-cooking M-I-L's recipe, save me), I mixed up the potatoes and the hamburger, and it seemed so bland ... so I added whole-kernel corn, and chili powder, and garlic.
You'd've thought I put nails in the durn things. He cou;dn't wait to get back up there and get one of the authentic ones! And poured ketchup all over it!
Mmmmmm... you're making me hungry!
I get that accent all over me, like powder, and then I start talking in some weird Texas drawl/Yooper accent myself. Scary, it is!
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