The Midwest is often treated by the coastal states as though it were one massive, homogeneous flatland. This isn’t true of course. The 12 states (more or less) that make up the Midwest are a unique tapestry, and they have the linguistic diversity to reflect that fact.
To be fair, the Midwestern accent used to be pretty much the same throughout the region. Up until the last century, the area was considered to possess an approximation of the General American dialect, which is a way of talking that doesn’t sound like any specific accent and is often used by newscasters.
But if you think “Midwestern accent” today, you could be imagining a few different things. There’s the gruff accent of Chicago, the changing voice of the Midland and the Fargo-ish quality of Minnesota, among others. Here, we’ll take a brief look into all three to get a somewhat clearer picture of the Midwest, as determined by linguists William Labov, Sharon Ash and Charles Boberg. Keep in mind that the features discussed aren’t shared by everyone in the area and not every feature is included, but there are too many varieties to go into minute detail in this article. To start, here’s the map of where the accents are located.
Midland American English
As indicated by the Midwesterner above, Midland American English speakers often don’t think they have an accent all. This accent is indeed the closest to General American, but it is rapidly changing. The accent is mostly associated with Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio and parts of Illinois. It also has some strong similarities with the English spoken in a few major metropolitan areas of Texas — including Austin — and central Florida.
This accent covers a pretty massive area, which is why Midland American English is slowly splitting into northern and southern halves. The southern half is strongly influenced by Southern American English, whereas the northern part is closer to General American. Despite this divide, there are a number of traits that still unify this region.
The characteristics of Midland American English are subtle, but they’re definitely there. The area is currently going through the cot-caught merger that is currently sweeping the nation. As the name implies, this means the words “cot” and “caught” are pronounced the same way. A number of other vowels are pronounced with the tongue slightly closer to the front of the mouth than usual. This accent pronounces all its “r”s, even in places there weren’t “r”s before. For example, some people pronounce “wash” as “warsh” (though this feature seems to be disappearing). Midwesterners also call carbonated drinks “pop” and use grammatical constructions like “Alls we did was go to the park.”
Inland Northern American English
As demonstrated by Lily Tomlin above, Inland Northern American English is distinctive in the way it sounds. The region that is defined by this speech is western New York and the areas surrounding the Great Lakes, including the cities Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit. It’s often called the Great Lakes accent, or the Chicago accent.
The Great Lakes accent was part of the basis for General American, but it has slowly been changing because of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. According to Labov, Ash and Boberg, at some point, likely in the 1930s and probably in western New York, people started pronouncing the vowel in “cat” a little bit higher up in the mouth, so it sounded a bit more like the vowel in “bet.” This set off a chain of vowel changes, with vowels replacing other vowels, to get a pattern like the one in the diagram below.
This diagram is meant to represent the position of your tongue in your mouth, with the left side being the front of the mouth. What this diagram shows is that these vowels in this part of the country have changed their location of pronunciation. For example, the vowel in “dress” is moved farther back in the mouth so it sounds more like “druss.” The numbers show the order in which these shifts happen, so the longer the Northern Cities Vowel Shift has been in an area, the more of these vowel shifts the area will have.
Inland Northern American English has other characteristics, but this vowel shift is what sets this accent apart from the rest. It was originally most strongly associated with the working class in the Rust Belt, but the strong version of the accent, often satirized by Saturday Night Live, is becoming less common. It’s still spoken by many people, and some famous Inland Northerners include Michael Moore, Iggy Pop and Paul Ryan, who linguists consider to be the first major politician to have this accent.
North-Central American English
The above video shows Don Ness, the former mayor of Duluth, Minnesota, who has the North-Central American English. It is the accent of most of Wisconsin, the Dakotas and Minnesota. It is associated with the latter, and so is more commonly known as the Minnesota accent. Yes, this is the one in Fargo, though that is an exaggerated version.
Like with many accents, the most noticeable marker of North-Central American English is the vowels. The diphthongs (vowels that are really two vowels close together) are perhaps the most noticeable difference. The vowels in “late” and “boat” are monophthongized, so they sound closer to “let” and “but,” respectively. Other vowels change by rising in the mouth; for example, the one in “bag” sounds more like “beg.” Linguists say the accent formed because of the German, Swedish and Norwegian people moving to the area in the late 1800s. The combination of these foreign accents merged with Inland North American English to create this new dialect.
For another example of this accent, you can turn to former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin. “But wait,” you say, “Alaska isn’t in the Midwest!” As it turns out, a massive migration of Minnesotans during the 1930s caused a dialect island to form in southern Alaska, and so they tend to sound very similar to Minnesotans.
It’s worth mentioning one sub-dialect of North-Central American English: Upper Peninsula English, or Yoopanese. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan accent is almost the same as the Minnesota accent because of similar immigrant populations. What sets it apart is that it is home to half of the United States’ Finnish population. Thanks to the introduction of the Finnish accent, people in this part of Michigan tend to emphasize the first syllable in words more often, and some older people pronounce “w”s as “v”s. There is also the use of the German-sounding “ya” for “yes.” Yoopanese also shares features with Canadian English, like the use of “eh.” While it’s a small place, the Upper Peninsula contains a fascinating mashup of accents.
The Midwest has been around for a long time, so there are many, many accents, and it’s very hard to generalize about any of them. This article presents just a few of the features that are used by Midwesterners, and it could triple in length if we included longer sections about slang. Also, the Northern Cities Vowel Shift will probably cause this information to become outdated within a decade or so. But if you find yourself in the Midwest of the United States someday, it’s worth it to listen to the voices around you to hear the rapidly changing dialect map of the United States.