Holy whah! Some Yoopers fear their colorful dialect may be fading

Posted: Sunday, April 04, 2004

HOUGHTON, Mich. Dan Junttila is a proud Yooper, spun from the same rich tapestry as the fathers, husbands, brothers and sons before him who came to America and forged a close-knit community around the copper and iron ore mines in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

So proud that he teaches a course on the peninsula's history and culture which is known for many things, including a colorfully accented way of speaking that some fear is in decline.

''I love the dialect,'' said the 51-year-old Junttila, born and bred in the peninsula's mining and logging country.

''Preserving our heritage and our culture, what could ever be wrong with that? Seems to be such an effort to get everybody to melt together in such a way that we'll all lose any semblance of self or identity.''

Plenty of Yoopers, as residents of the Upper Peninsula are fondly known, take pride in their distinctive accents and quirky colloquialisms.

Drop by a tavern in any of the former mining villages that dot the heavily forested landscape. You're likely to hear natives sounding a bit like Albert Soady and his sons, Reuben and Remnar, captured in filmmaker Jeff Daniels' offbeat comedy ''Escanaba in da Moonlight.'' The scene is a deer hunting camp in the backwoods of the Upper Peninsula which is, as Albert explains, ''nort' of da Mackinac Bridge and just sout' of heaven, for dose of ya dat don't know nothin'.''

Reuben: ''Is dat Albert Soady's sweet sap whiskey over dere I see?

Albert: ''Might be so lucky.''

Reuben: ''Well, better have me a snort, eh?''

Remnar: ''I was drivin' up ta camp, eh? ... when all of a sudden, right in front of me, is a 50-point buck!''

Reuben: ''Holy whah!''

Remnar: ''Holy whah is right.''

After the movie's release in 2001, some Yoopers complained the stereotypes and exaggerated renderings of the dialect were demeaning. But for others, being the target of good-natured humor was a fair price for having such Yooperisms as ''holy whah'' the equivalent of ''holy cow'' or perhaps a stronger exclamation made immortal in film.

They say the dialect is fading because of an increasingly mobile society, the passing of immigrant generations whose native languages shaped the Yooper tongue, and the homogenizing influence of mass culture and media.

''It's partly the transplants people coming here from all over the country,'' said Dan Dulong, a 57-year-old meat cutter from Hancock, a former mining town that's home to many descendants of Finnish immigrants.

Last December, the Upper Peninsula's four state representatives sponsored a resolution to establish Yooper as the ''official state dialect.'' It describes Yooper as ''endangered ... on the verge of vanishing forever,'' and argues that preserving it would ''maintain a tie to our multicultural heritage.''

The measure is largely symbolic, but at its core is pride.

Elizabeth Norton, a ninth-grader at Traverse City's East Junior High School, proposed the resolution to a group of lawmakers who visit schools to discuss state government. She said her research had uncovered scholarly papers that described Yooper talk as fading.

''If we lose that,'' she said, ''we'll lose part of what makes us unique as a state.''

Yooper dialect is a linguistic melting pot, featuring pronunciations and idiomatic words and expressions rooted in the languages of Europeans who settled in the Upper Peninsula and of native Indians. French explorers arrived in the 1600s and made their mark. But the stereotypical U.P. dialect owes more to the immigration wave during the copper and iron ore rush two centuries later.

People came primarily from Finland and the Cornwall region of western England, but also Sweden, Poland, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. Junttila's own ancestors came over from Finland and Sweden.

As the immigrants and their children learned English, their heavily accented pronunciations helped form the regional dialect.

But is it really vanishing? Linguists say rumors of the demise of Yooperspeak are greatly exaggerated.

''It's changing, but it's not dying,'' said Kathryn Remlinger, an associate professor at Grand Valley State University who has studied Upper Peninsula speech. ''Language is always changing.''

Actually, she added, there is no single Yooper dialect. What you hear depends on where in the peninsula you are, and on the age and social class of the speaker. Many Yoopers sound like typical Midwesterners.

Accents are thicker in rural areas, which are less exposed to outside influences, and among older people only a generation or two removed from immigrant ancestors, Remlinger said.

Many commonly known ''Yooperisms'' show the Finnish influence, such as substitution of a ''d'' sound for ''th,'' as in ''dere'' instead of ''there'' or ''dem'' instead of ''them.''

Another example: the pronunciation of ''yeah'' as ''yah,'' which Remlinger traces to the Finnish equivalent: ''joo.''

But she said the familiar Yooper practice of ending sentences with ''eh'' (''Have a nice, day, eh'') probably comes from the French ''hein,'' a word French Canadians often tack onto sentences.

The word ''Yooper'' once was viewed as derogatory, and those with a heavy accent derided as bumpkins who were ignorant and uncultured. The result: Many young adults who left the area for school or careers suppressed their accents to avoid ridicule.

''People aren't aware of how damaging linguistic prejudices can be not just to self-esteem, but in the way they contribute to the losing of a culture,'' Remlinger said.

Laura Walikainen, a 21-year-old linguistics student at Michigan Tech University, is a lifelong Yooper with a barely noticeable accent but she admits she isn't immune to social pressures at college to conform.

''The way you talk is so important it's how you're judged,'' she said.

That problem isn't unique to the Upper Peninsula, said Kirk Hazen, a West Virginia University linguist who has studied Southern dialects. ''Rural accents have marked people as country hicks throughout the 20th century and before,'' he said.

Yet the Southern drawl and similar accents have survived. Hazen and Remlinger say they're actually gaining strength, thanks to a growing sense of ethnic identity and pride in place. Besides, most linguists believe the watering-down effects of radio and television are limited.

''There are a lot of people who darn well want to keep speaking Yooper and they really don't care what anyone thinks,'' said Junttila, who encourages his ''U.P. Topics'' students to appreciate their roots.

During a recent class, the children read about the Cornish pasty, a meat-and-vegetable turnover that was a luncheon staple during the mining era and remains popular.

''We have an undying Yooper belief, a kind of stubbornness that says something that was once so good and comfortable must be worth holding on to,'' Junttila said. ''Not all change is good.''

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