Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Oyah -- Good Fox Up Dare

Buffy speaks with a Minnesotan accent but she swears she sounds nothing like Marge Gunderson or Jerry Lundegaard. And she's right. She doesn't have the classic Fargo markers. The most commonly cited pronunciation is probably the un-diphthongized "o". Some Minnesotans pronounce words like "boat" "don't" and "lone" with an [o] similar to the first vowel in "foreign".1 Buffy does this very rarely. It's usually when she's upset excited tired or nervous.

But it's the front vowels that have gotten my attention lately. I was surprised to find that not only does Buffy pronounce "bag" [beg] (when I would say [bæg]) she still makes the distinction between /e/ and /æ/. When asked to say "wagon" she says [wegən] but when asked to syllabify it she says [wey - gən]. She claims the first vowel is identical to the vowel in ray gun. And it's a true rhyme with "Reagan" she offers.

So I asked her to group together the words that have the same stressed vowel sound. In the first group she put the following:
banger cater wager rag rake dragon drag wagon rage bagging bang blank flank range rang brag hang rank plague clang lagging crag crane dragging flagged flake gangly hanger plank lag fanged deranged plagued crank rank gauge.

She contrasted these with the following:
ladder badger branch match tragic magic tragedy gas backing hag rack plaque ran flange blacken cat

So apparently before a voiced velar stop or nasal (either [g] or [ŋ]) she raises /æ/ to /e/. Adding the [i]/[j] diphthongisation is probably just a natural effect when a coda is lost and the following onset is noticeably suspended.

Even though she hears and says these vowels differently I haven't thought of a way to test the actual phonemic quality of them. Does she see /æ/ and /e/ as a minimal pair or are they allophones?

She did offer some fun information. Her friend from Maryland heard her say "flag" and teased her, claiming she pronounced it [flIg] rhyming with "big." Her friends from Nebraska heard her ask "do you want a bag?" and thought she had asked "do you want to beg?" (the "want to" probably pronounced "wanna"). So I wonder: did the Nebraskans and Marylanders perceive the [e] differently? And how would they perceive that nasal "Michigan/Indiana" /æ/ that comes out [iæ]? (Think of saying "yeah" as the vowel in "flat.")

And what about that weird presence of "hag" in the second group? She told me that she never heard the word growing up and since she has become aware of the [æ/e] alternation she finds herself getting confused about the distribution -- sometimes she asks for a baggle with cream cheese then gets a vag (instead of "vague") sense that something wasn't right about it.

1. I know -- not all of them. But I have heard it everywhere from Minneapolis up to Detroit Lakes and over to Mille Lacs. Also in both North and South Dakota where I heard it in every city. In North Dakota I encountered the strongest examples in the northern and eastern regions and in South Dakota in the eastern part. I spoke with maybe four people who spoke with an accent as strong as that of the characters in the Coens' fine film.


  1. The most subtle accent I have yet encountered is Ohio's. It almost defies description (although based on this post, I think you could give it a noble effort!).

  2. No, but everyone needs to know that I don't STILL pronounce all those words in that first category with the hard "a." That's how I said them until several years ago, at which point I started being so conscientious I'd overcorrect, as you kindly point out in the examples, "baggle" and "vag."

    And Chandler Riley gets credit for mocking me, at Camp Heritage, with "I pledge allegiance to the flig."

    And my Dairy Queen cohorts for finally entreating me to call the bags, "sacks" to avoid confusion.

  3. Buffy doesn't sound funny when she types words on a blog...

    But, what the heck is "vag?"

  4. It was her over-corrected pronunciation of "vague."

    Although I can see an unfortunate misreading of the 'g' in which case it'd be a whole different type of "sense."

    She says "Oh Yuck!" (So I'll forgo any specific joke about the type of schmear the bagel would have).

  5. OHHH YAAA, I love this blog. What an interesting study to find out how different accents say different things. I'm finding myself almost talking like a Canadian here in GF. Every now and then I find myself saying aboot or however you'd spell how they say it. I'm not familiar with all those phonological symbals. I just know that I agree with Buffy. Bag, rag, wagon, and sag (like saggy boobs); they all rhyme. Miss you!

  6. Okay, I can tell you really do love linguistics...

    Poor Buffy getting picked on for her accent - and hers isn't even that bad!

  7. Nonono there's no teasing going on here. It's pure description. In fact I wish she had a stronger accent so it would give me things to talk about. Things to try to analyze.

    Ceri: I wonder if I'd recognize an Ohio accent. I know a few people from the northern part. But they've moved around so much I'm not sure what's a product of Ohio. And some from the southern part sound just like Kentuckians. I lived in Columbus for a few years in my childhood. I didn't even have enough of an ear to hear the difference in accent when I moved from there to Maryland. Or from Maryland to Michigan.


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.