How to Speak Midwestern by Edward McClelland. Belt Publishing, 2016. 9780997774276.
Midwesterners think they don’t have an accent, and there’s a reason. Standard American spelling diverged from English spelling because of an influential writer: Noah Webster. He created Webster’s Dictionary, which favored the simpler of alternate spellings of words, and authored spelling textbooks using the same principles. What we think of as the sound of standard American speech was influenced by John S. Kenyon: he wrote books on proper pronunciation and was the pronunciation editor of (what a coincidence!) Webster’s New International Dictionary of American English. Kenyon’s Ohio-based standardizations influenced James F. Bender, author of the NBC Handbook of Pronunciation, so starting in World War II, newscasters adopted them, too.
McClelland makes the academic study of accents accessible, despite terms like rhoticity and Northern cities vowel shift. He gives examples from pop culture, from Bill Swersky’s Superfans (“Da Bearsss”) to Chingy’s “Right Thurr.” For research, he traveled all over the Midwest to talk to locals, and even went to Brainerd, MN, to investigate how people felt about the accents in the movie Fargo. (Their verdict: inaccurate, or at least sorely out of date.)
I really enjoyed learning the history that shaped accents, everything from the lack of social mobility in blue-collar towns, to interstate highways connecting cities, to the early settlers of Minnesota being separated by language at work by the mine bosses. (If nobody on your work crew spoke the same language as you, you couldn’t unionize.) There’s a common shift from developing a regional accent to being embarrassed by it when you leave home to being proud of it as a marker of local belonging. (McClelland only found out he had an accent when he went to college.)
Even if you don’t nerd out over culture and language, pick this up for the vocabulary in the back. I learned that kids in St. Louis are expected to tell a joke before they get their Halloween candy, that the “Michigan left” reduced traffic collisions in the state by 60%, and that there’s a chariot-riding demon called Nain Rouge that haunts Detroit in times of trouble.
McClelland also includes vital sandwich-related research so you’ll know what local delights to order when you travel. Many of them seem engineered to be most appealing when you’re extremely drunk, like Illinois’s Horseshoe: an open faced sandwich with ham, turkey, or hamburger on toast, topped with French fries, then smothered in cheese sauce.