Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Midwest: Out here in the middle

Out here in the middle
You can park on the street
Step up to the counter
Nearly always get a seat
Nobody steals
Nobody cheats
Wish you were here my love
Wish you were here my love
—Robert Earl Keen, "Out here in the middle", from Farm Fresh Onions, 2003

Just as I unexpectedly found myself without significant internet access for a couple of days (don't ask — but it did not involve legal or medical professionals, at least), Wishdig posted his report on his very nice poll about what states make up the "Midwest". I won't make lots of suggestions about how he might pursue the topic, but let me give a little hint: Dennis Preston's perceptual dialectology would provide a nice model for thinking about this, and even getting a nice project out of it, if anybody needs one.

Anyhow, I've long been fascinated by the sense of regional identity here — so sharply different from the way Texans or Southerners, for example, identify with their regions. The Robert Earl Keene lyric above gets at a key piece for me, "out here in the middle".

Wishydig notes in the comments that some states, like Wisconsin, are too far north to be 'Midwestern'. Here (where it's currently too hot to feel 'northern'), we call our region the Upper Midwest. I know the Lower Midwest well (better than you might think, maybe better than I want to) and it's interesting that in Illinois, Indiana, and so on people never really talk of themselves as 'lower Midwest' as far as I know: Those areas are the 'heartland', the core 'Midwest'. Up here, we're a very distinct area, but still often defined as Midwestern. Some people talk about the 'northern tier' and such, but weather forecasts and such usually call us the Upper Midwest.

But for those of us interested in language, it's striking how profoundly the Midwest does NOT correspond to a dialect area on any standard view. The Midlands area (map from here — Cynthia Clopper is a young linguist doing important work on regional English right now) would look like the obvious 'Midwestern dialect', so case closed, right? Nope: A whole literature is devoted to the question of whether the Midlands exists as a dialect area. It's argued by such people (Carver for vocabulary, Davis & Houck more generally) that this is a "transition zone" between north and south.


V Smoothe said...

For some reason, I was always under the impression that "the Midwest" or "Midwestern states" referred very specifically to the area that was part of the original Northwest Territory. So, basically Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan.

Did I just make that up?

Mr. Verb said...

Don't know offhand, but that does sound vaguely familiar. Of course, that kind of historical definition would be prone to change over time.

Wishydig said...

Yes. That's one of the several lexical definitions I alluded to.

What I notice about this map you put up is how well it correlates with the responses I got. The borders are almost perfectly lined-up.

Mr. Verb said...

Aha. Indiana would be a good place to test the 'real' versus perceptual dialect boundaries, of course, since you have a set within the state. Erica Benson had a nice piece in American Speech a couple years back showing pretty good patterning like this for Ohio, I think.