Friday, March 30, 2007

Upper Midwestern speech in the news, the bad way

We spend a fair bit of time here in Verbville talking about journalists and others who write professionally about language — with more focus on the bumblings of the likes of Safire than on the good work that people like Jan Freeman and Nathan Bierma do. Another source of news on language in the media are the occasional wire stories that pop up and then run through an often odd life cycle, ending up with badly failed humor or bizarre 'opinion' pieces.

A recent story illustrates this. Kathryn Remlinger of Grand Valley State University in Michigan is well known in dialectology and sociolinguistics for her work on English spoken in Michigan's Upper Penninsula. That region is known as the UP, the people from there as Yoopers and their dialect as Yooper. There's a small industry of Yooper humor (including dialect, see picture) and the band Da Yoopers are a riot. ("Songs for Fart Lovers" may or may not be your cup of tea, but they are brilliant.)

We're pretty far from the UP down here in Madison, but news does get around and a story about her work recently showed up in a few Wisconsin papers, with versions of this one running in places like Beaver Dam (east and a little north of Madison). So far, so good. But eventually this story hit the 'opinion' sections, and we have the Wisconsin State Journal's contribution on it here. Before reading on, follow that link and check the piece out.

So, back after reading it now? The wildly overdone eye dialect (trying to represent accents in spelling) doesn't do much for me, and the raft of lame jokes wears on you. (And my brother Phil is hardly dumb as a post and we all do trust him to bring the Leinie's to our Stanley Cup parties.) But do you get a real idea of what Remlinger is doing from this story? Using the Up Nort' pseudo-dialect to call "da perfesser's" grant to study historical speech patterns "a waste of money" (and calling her "dis gal") is a step too far. (Let's not even comment on the crassest insult.) Yeah, this is 'humor' or 'parody', he doesn't really mean it, blah blah freakin' blah. Bromley should be banned from the UP for making Yoopers look bad: I've never met anybody from up there nearly as dumb or as mean as this guy. You're not funny, man, certainly not like Da Yoopers. And not even as funny as this:
A little ol' lady with fading eyesight decides to go ice fishing after she heard how good ice fishing was that winter. She heads out to the edge of town very early one dark morning, finds an ice covered pond and starts drilling through the ice. A voice from above thunders out: " You won't find any fish there". So she moves to the other side , and again the voice booms out "There aren't aren't any fish there either "In desperation she says " Okay God, there aren't any fish here, and not on the other side. So tell me where are the fish". "I'm not God", says the voice, "I'm just the guy who runs the hockey rink."
Big doffs of the tuque to Eric Raimy and (second-hand) to Greg Smith. And a wag of the finger to Ben Bromley.


Anonymous said...

One thing (among many) that really burns me here is how mean-spirited this doofus Bromley is ... that doesn't even work in the voice he's trying to adopt.

Stef H said...

I do not understand how someone can criticize what Professor Remlinger is attempting to do; she is exploring language attitudes in hopes of debunking the myth that people from the U.P talk differently because they are stupid. On the contrary, there are many dialects of the English language, all of which are rule governed and add color to the English language. Why is this so controversial? After all, linguists are doing the same thing with AAE (African American English); they study the unique syntactic constructions of the language and show how they are rule governed, in order to decrease discrimination based on language. How do I know this? I know this, because Professor Remlinger is my professor, and I think that bringing about awareness of discrimination, whether it is due to differences in culture or differences in language, is an important thing. Although Mr. Bromley mocks the study of the U.P. dialect, he mentions that Southerners do not speak bad English that makes them appear stupid; they simply speak differently. Unfortunately, many people do believe that dialects other than Standard American English are inferior; Professor Remlinger wants to help debunk the myth that some dialects are inferior to others, and show that, as Bromley says, they “simply speak differently.” Why he then goes on to criticize this study when he has already agreed with the main premise, I do not know. My question is, with people like Mr. Bromley, can we ever hope to eliminate the stigmatism that surrounds various dialects of English?