Nov. 30 2016 11:18 AM

Exploring the unique words, accents of the Midwest

“How to Speak Midwestern,” by Ted McClelland, explores the linguistic curiosities of the Midwest.
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Edward McClelland took a linguistic tour of the Midwest while doing research for his new book, “How to Speak Midwestern,” a delightful romp through the dialects and vocabulary of the region. But it also became a culinary tour. On the menu were quintessential Midwestern treats like Coney dogs, city chicken, pasties, brats and kringles.

“Michigan is the only place in the Midwest that has what are called Coney dogs,” McClelland said, adding that there are regional variations such as “loose” Detroit-style dogs and “tight” Flint-style versions.

McClelland, who grew up in Lansing and attended Sexton High School, became interested in accents and unique phrases while at the University of Michigan. He remembers a professor describing the phonetic phenomenon known as vowel shift, where some pronounce words like box as “bahx” and can as “cayen.”

Later, McClelland learned about the different accents and unique words floating around the Midwest at the many Chicago taverns that cater to fans and alumni of Big 10 schools. (“Tavern” is common in Chicago, whereas most Michiganders call them “bars.”) A popular watering hole for Spartan fans is Chicago’s Grand River Bar & Grill.

“I spent a lot of time in Chicago taverns, listening,” McClelland said. Spartans will recognize one bar he frequented called Grand River Avenue.

One of McClelland’s favorite word combos is “Kennywood open” which is used in Pittsburgh to let another person know that their fly is open. It is derived from the name of a local amusement park. (But saying someone’s Kennywood is open all the time has an entirely different meaning.) In Michigan schools it was once called “letting the cow out of the barn,” or one might warn you to “xyz” — examine your zipper.

And then there are the inevitable derisive words that fall into our regional linguistic patterns. Pittsburgh’s name for a nosy person is a “nebshit,” and Michiganians are probably familiar with the term “fudgie.” “Goo goos,” adapted from the phrase good government, is an Illinois word used by Catholics to describe Protestant reformers who want to clean up the city’s “machine.”

McClelland said that the Upper Peninsula, due to its isolation and Finnish influence, give us with some interesting words like pastie, the region’s famous meat pies. The word is sometimes spelled pasty, but it is never pronounced with a long “a” sound.

“Don’t make the mistake of calling them ‘pay-stee,’” McClelland said.

During the celebration of Michigan’s Sesquicentennial in 1987, the sponsors created a T-shirt with two pasties and the phrase “Is it pasty or pastie?” The shirts sold out in minutes.

McClelland also likes yoopers’ use of “eh.”

“It’s a little word that is doing a lot of work for the taciturn people of the Upper Peninsula,” he said.

McClelland’s analysis of “eh” may be the longest entry in the book’s glossary.

“It’s known as a tag question, a conversational cue that either confirms a listener’s attentiveness or offers his own opinion or information,” he writes.

“The most reasonable derivation of ‘eh’ is it is from the French Canadian word ‘hein,’ which serves the same purpose,” McClelland said.

In the book’s introduction, the author describes the Midwestern tendency of “talking through your nose” and the canonized butchering of foreign names like Detroit, Cairo and Cadieux. McClelland also notes that despite regional dialects, “nobody sings in Michigan accents,” citing artists like Iggy Pop.

But McClellend also argues that regional variations are becoming less pronounced. Higher rates of college attendance and increased mobility have caused geographic leveling, so we are starting to sound more like each other. He includes the film “Fargo,” which is set in Minnesota, as an example.

“That accent, heavily influenced by Scandinavian inflections, would have been common (…) when the Coen brothers were growing up,” McClelland writes. “By the time they returned to film Fargo, 20 years later, the accent they set out to caricature was dead and buried or living in a nursing home.”

“How to Speak Midwestern”

Book signing with Ted McClelland
1-3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3
Everybody Reads
2019 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing
(517) 346-9900,