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Michiganders: Believe it or not, you have an accent

The Rust Belt is home to the Inland North accent
wikimedia user Uwe Dedering

We Michiganders tend to think of ourselves as having no accent, instead speaking with a perfect, neutral broadcast voice. But according to Ted McClelland, that’s not the case.

In his piece for BELT Magazine, McClelland argues that we in the Midwest speak a strain of English that’s shaking up millennia-old conventions.

According to McClelland, those of us in the Lower Great Lakes region speak with what’s called the Inland North accent. He tells us the accent is the result of a linguistic transition known as the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, and is “said to be one of the biggest changes in speech in a thousand years.”

“There are vowels that have been stable in English for almost a millennium, and we in the upper Midwest are pronouncing them differently than they have ever been pronounced before,” he says.

Specifically, McClelland says Midwesterners have a unique way of pronouncing their “a’s” and “o’s.”

This video offers some good examples of the sort of accent McClelland is talking about:

(Warning: This video contains explicit language.)

McClelland tells us there are several schools of thought that attempt to explain the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, one of which comes from linguist William Labov.

“He believes it got started as a result of the Erie Canal, when people from all over, people from New York, people from Boston, immigrants from Ireland got together,” he says. “Out of that mix they started a new sort of linguistic soup.”

Some linguists have suggested that the Northern Cities Vowel Shift is fading, but McClelland doesn’t think it will disappear entirely.

“It’s not increasing, but it still exists. I mean we’ll always have regional accents,” McClelland says. “Accents will probably become somewhat flatter and more generic as time goes on, but I think there will still always be a distinctive Michigan accent.”

Ted McClelland is the author of Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hope of America’s Industrial Heartland. You’ll find his book on the Northern Inland accent at beltmag.com.

Listen to our conversation above to learn more about the Northern Cities Vowel Shift and hear more examples of the Inland North accent.

– Ryan Grimes, Stateside

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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