Saturday, July 21, 2007

Fargo (the film) dialect

Me and the missus, after a long day and a fine dinner (all from the grill), kicked back in front of the TV. No cage death match stuff and none of those chick shows she's so wild about on the Oxygen Network, so we went surfing. What do we find: Fargo. OK, it's not the definitive movie of our region, but it's the Coen Brothers and I frankly worship the ground they film on. And just so you know, the city of Fargo plays a pretty small role in the movie — it's basically set in Minnesota, mostly in Brainerd.

Entertainment value aside (Is it funnier to see Steve Buscemi shot in the jaw and walking around with bloody paper stuck to his face or to see his white-socked foot sticking up out of the wood chipper? I can never decide.), the film gets a lot of attention for the regional English used. The Coen Brothers are Minnesotans and they are hamming it up big-time. For some people, it's all they know about Upper Midwestern English; for many here, it's Gomer Pyle or Hee Haw imposed on their region.

So, I listened a little, when I wasn't laughing so hard I was crying, to how they talked. A few things just screamed 'parody' — there are a couple of exchanges that consist basically of Yah? Oh, Yah. So, yah. OK, then, yah. Generally, the discourse marking and 'Minnesota nice' cliches are over the top, including good old you betcha. And they get a few salient constructions in that you might hear but that don't say much to me structurally or sociolinguistically, beyond rank stereotyping, like somebody being up from Brainerd when they're in the Twin Cities (south of Brainerd).

When it comes to real structural features, though, it seems less overplayed: There's a fair bit of 'devoicing' (or fortition, as the local phonologists call it) of final stops and especially fricatives — in fact, we get the phrase Go Bears! (for the White Lake Bears high school team) with a clear [s], like da Bears on Saturday Night Live, and a screaming Upper Midwestern long /o:/ in go. A few characters have stops for interdental fricatives a lot of the time and various folks have them occasionally (what the Wisconsin Englishes folks call dem dere dose [= them, there, those]). I don't hang out with Minnesota State Troopers, but could imagine this as a relatively slight exaggeration for Brainerd speech. And we get the distinctively Upper Midwestern use of yet, for still: "You're here yet."

But there are a few things that are real and don't seem to be on the stereotype radar screen. One such example is the frequent lack of aspiration on initial /p, t, k/. A trooper uses tags like this strikingly for example, sounding almost like dags.

When the Wisconsin Englishes guys get around to media representations of English up here, they've got some fodder here.


The Ridger, FCD said...

Two things I always think of when I think of Fargo - one linguistic, the other not.

The Japanese guy with the Minnesota accent - just like I was unreasonably startled by little children with British accents in England - or, for some reason weirder, little children chattering in German in Germany (Hey! I said it was unreasonable), so too that guy was inexplicably weird.

And Marge Gunderson being pregnant ... and that's it. I mean, she didn't go into labor at some critical or comic moment. She was just pregnant. I loved that.

Wishydig said...

O cheess. It's a gret movie ya kno?

My wife doesn't have the 'Fargo' markers in her speech. But she is an extreme 'ash' raiser before a voiced velar.

When I told her that in my dialect 'wagon' doesn't rhyme with 'Reagan' she thought I was kidding.

Mr. Verb said...

First, to the Ridger's comments: You know, the scene with the Japanese-American guy in the hotel bar is in some odd way the saddest one in the movie -- until you find out that his sob story was entirely made up and that he's basically a stalker. I was wondering about the dialect angle there on reading your comment, though: Minnesota has a very large Hmong population, even somewhat larger than Wisconsin. Obviously, we have a broad Asian-American population, but the Hmong are the best known. A Hmong person of his age would probably have come over at an age when he wouldn't have acquired a strong (native-sounding) accent, but like generations of immigrants before them, of course, younger Hmong today DO have that. Almost makes me wonder if this was an allusion to that situation somehow.

Marge being pregnant definitely adds to the suspense, but also to the overall weirdness of the movie. How often does a cop who's 8 months (or whatever) pregnant shoot a murder suspect? And the morning sickness at the murder scene, that makes for a pretty odd laugh line.

Mr. Verb said...

Second, to Wishydig's comment: I *cannot* believe I wasn't listening for pre-velar [æ] raising the whole time!

But, does your wife lower the vowel in words like vague, to rhyme with bag?

Wishydig said...

She does accidentally lower it to the [æ] vowel but she always catches it. She even lowers non-prevelar [eɪ] to [æ] producing such hypercorrections as 'back' for 'bake' at times.

And of course 'bagel' is a source of confusion for her. She has no idea what that vowel is supposed to be.

For a while she thought she didn't still raise pre-velar but I've informed her otherwise. And I keep telling her that there is no shame in it. I wrote about it a while ago.