Review of Language Variation and Change in the American Midland
EDITORS: Thomas E. Murray, Beth Lee Simon
TITLE: Language Variation and Change in the American Midland
SUBTITLE: A New Look at 'Heartland' English
SERIES TITLE: Varieties of English Around the World
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Reviewer: Lamont D. Antieau, University of Georgia
While many language variationists have accepted the idea that there is a
Midland dialect of American English, relatively little has been published
on the speech of the Midland region. In his edited volume ''HEARTLAND''
ENGLISH: VARIATION AND TRANSITION IN THE MIDWEST (1993), Timothy Frazer
sought to address this lack by presenting a variety of research that was
being done in the area, which in turn encouraged further research on
Midland English. Thomas Murray and Beth Simon's edited volume, LANGUAGE
VARIATION AND CHANGE IN THE AMERICAN MIDLAND: A NEW LOOK AT 'HEARTLAND'
ENGLISH (2006), is a volume comprising current scholarship on language
variation in the American heartland.
The volume includes 15 articles in four sections plus an introductory
section that comprises two papers by the editors. In ''Introducing the
Midland: What Is It, Where Is It, How Do We Know?'' Simon discusses
problems and challenges that scholars face with respect to the concept of
regionality and its application to the Midland region of the United States.
In ''What Is Dialect? Revisiting the Midland,'' Murray and Simon review the
literature on Midland English, including some of the controversy
surrounding the existence of the region, while making their own position
quite clear: ''What we argue in this chapter (and by virtue of presenting
this volume) is that Midland dialect does, in fact, exist'' (2). Murray and
Simon use several sources to compile a list of 17 grammatical variants that
the results of American dialectology have typically associated with the
Midland region. Their claim is not that this evidence provides the final
word on the subject of whether there is a Midland dialect, but ''to spur
attention, theorizing, and especially, new research using contemporary
methodologies for data collection and analysis'' (28).
Part One of the volume, entitled ''The Evolving Midland,'' comprises three
papers that focus on several aspects on language variation in the region,
but especially focus on variation in the vowels of Midland English. In
''The North American Midland as a Dialect Area,'' Sharon Ash presents data
collected by the Telsur project to make the argument that ''[t]he Midland is
a dialect region, positively defined by a variety of phonological, lexical,
and syntactic features'' (55). Ash finds evidence of a clear North-Midland
boundary reflecting an early settlement route established 200 years ago and
a fuzzier border between the Midland and the South that corresponds to an
array of routes and streams available to early settlers traveling along the
southern route. While Ash finds some variability among Midland cities, she
also finds they have much in common linguistically, especially at the
geographic core of the region.
In ''Tracking the Low Back Merger in Missouri,'' Matthew J. Gordon discusses
the geographic and social distribution of the low back merger in a place
that ''has long been known as a dialectological crossroads where the South
meets North or rather the South Midland meets the North Midland'' (57).
Using a questionnaire distributed throughout the Show Me State to elicit
the reaction of informants as to whether the vowels in such minimal pairs
as ''don'' and ''dawn'' are the same, close, or different, Gordon finds the low
back merger to be an active variable throughout much of Missouri despite
some resistance to the linguistic phenomenon in St. Louis and its outlying
areas. Testing the results of the questionnaire against the social
variables of region, age, and sex, Gordon finds evidence that the merger is
more pronounced among younger informants, suggesting that it is a change in
In ''Evidence from Ohio on the Evolution of /Q/,'' Erik R. Thomas examines
the distribution of the variable /Q/ in Ohio English by conducting acoustic
analyses on Ohioans readings of ''Arthur the Rat'' that were recorded for the
Dictionary of American Regional English from 1967 to 1970. Thomas finds
evidence of a long-standing difference in Ohio between Northern and Midland
realizations of /Q/ and proposes that these differences are probably the
result of dialectal variation among early settlers of the region. Thomas
contends that the patterns of /Q/ found in older Ohio records not only
account for variation in Ohio today but can also be used to deduce what the
source dialects of Ohio were like.
The second section of the volume is entitled ''Defining the Midland'' and
comprises four papers. In ''On the Use of Geographic Names to Inform
Regional Language Studies,'' Edward Callary calls for linguistic geographers
and toponymists to work together toward an understanding of dialectal
variation and shows how recent advancements in computing have made
onomastic research relatively easy to conduct. Callary's research on the
use of such dialectal words as ''branch,'' ''fork,'' and ''corners'' in place
names proves to be problematic for the idea of a Midland dialect, as their
areal distribution suggests a wide range of Southern influence that leaves
little room for a Midland region.
Thomas S. Donahue's article ''On the Eastern Edge of the Heartland: Two
Industrial City Dialects'' compares the dialects of Youngstown, Ohio, and
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Donahue finds that the two cities share many
dialectal variants, owing at least in part to similar populations that
consisted of Ulster Scots, German, and immigrant factory workers that came
from eastern and southern Europe, but he also notes a number of
differences, particularly in vowel mergers and contrasts, as well as in the
lexicon. Because he is interested in how urban dialects emerge, Donahue
presents several explanations for this phenomenon, including those offered
by conflict theory, dialectology, and sociology of language. Donahue
maintains that dialects of the 21st century have been shaped less by
settlement patterns and population movements than by the division of labor
within a community.
In ''The Final Days of Appalachian Heritage Language,'' Kirk Hazen describes
West Virginia speech as a good example of language use in Midland
Appalachia, and a variety that provides clear division between Northern and
Southern features in a single state. Hazen predicts that while the older
dialect spoken in the area, or ''Appalachian Heritage Language,'' will
eventually be transformed, the speech of the region will continued to be
distinct from other areas of the United States, not through linguistic
features unique to the area, but through a distinct configuration of these
features within the region.
In the article ''It'll Kill Ye or Cure Ye, One: The History and Function of
Alternative One,'' Michael Montgomery examines the use of ''one'' as an
indefinite pronoun in sentences of the form ''He was in Tennessee or
Kentucky, one'' (153). Montgomery presents historical evidence suggesting
that alternative ''one'' was an Americanism that developed in the Midland
dialect region during the early 19th century and spread southward.
Montgomery also presents the results of questionnaires that were designed
to elicit acceptability judgments on the use of alternative ''one'' from
students at the University of South Carolina. While there are difficulties
relating this grammatical structure to other grammatical structures in
American English, Montgomery contends that study of features like
alternative ''one'' may shed light on how dialect grammar evolves.
The third section of the book is entitled ''Power and Perception'' and
comprises four papers. In ''Standardizing the Heartland,'' Richard W. Bailey
examines attitudes about Heartland English that originated when eastern
grammatical preferences were imposed on the Midland region via textbook
publishers in Boston, New York, and Cincinnati. Bailey finds that over
time Midwesterners adopted not only the grammatical preferences of eastern
publishers but their attitudes toward language variation as well.
In the article ''How to Get to Be One Kind of Midwesterner: Accommodation
to the Northern Cities Chain Shift,'' Betsy E. Evans, Rika Ito, Jamila
Jones, and Dennis R. Preston examine accommodation among three communities
of Michiganders: Appalachians in Ypsilanti, African-Americans in Lansing,
and a group of rural mid-Michiganders in the town of Clare. By analyzing
the results of acoustic analysis of the vowels of their informants, as well
as several social factors, including networks, Evans et al. find that the
three groups have accommodated to urban speech norms at different rates and
offer several reasons for these differences.
In ''Midland(s) Dialect Geography: Social and Demographic Variables,''
Timothy Frazer makes the argument not only for the existence of a Midland
but several Midlands. Frazer points out that labels like Midland and
Northern are explanatory in nature rather than the names of real entities,
but he also admits that the explanatory fiction of the Midland region holds
immense value for himself and other scholars of American English.
In the chapter ''Drawing out the /ai/: Dialect Boundaries and /ai/
Variation,'' Cynthia Bernstein argues that variants of /ai/ and attitudes
about its use are important features that not only distinguish Northern and
Southern dialects of American English, but also distinguish South from
South Midland and South Midland from North Midland, as well as a variety of
social groups. Conflicting attitudes about the variant partially reflect
''that what is often lumped together as a 'southern dialect' comprises many
social and regional speech communities'' (209).
The final section of the book is entitled ''Other Languages, Other Places''
and it comprises four papers. In ''Learning Spanish in the North Georgia
Mountains,'' Ellen Johnson and David Boyle examine the sociolinguistic
situation in Dalton, Georgia, a textile town in the Appalachians that has
undergone recent growth in its Hispanic population. Unlike many other
studies that have focused only on non-native speakers learning English,
Johnson and Boyle's study examines the mutual influence that speakers of
Spanish and English have had on one another, and the authors predict that a
Hispanic-associated variety of English is certain to emerge in Dalton and
other similar environments.
In the article ''The Midland above the Midland: Dialect Variation by
Region, Sex, and Social Group in the Linguistic Atlas of the Upper
Midwest,'' Michael D. Linn and Ronald Regal apply statistics to LAUM data
primarily in order to test whether the differences between Northern and
Midland dialects in the upper Midwest are qualitative or if they are the
products of a combination of features. Testing LAUM lexical, phonological
and syntactic data, Linn and Regal find that regional patterns do exist in
the data, especially with respect to lexical forms, but that the choice of
grammatical forms is more of a product of social type and sex than region.
In ''Portable Community: The Linguistic and Psychological Reality of
Midwestern Pennsylvania German,'' Steven Hartman Keiser examines regional
variation in Deitsch and finds a great deal of heterogeneity in the small
area where it is spoken in Pennsylvania, while finding a relative degree of
homogeneity in the variety that is used in several of the Deitsch speech
islands in the Midland area outside of Pennsylvania. Keiser contends that
this homogeneity is the result of the ''portable community'' in which these
speakers live, as the people who speak the language have never stopped
moving. Using a perceptual study, Keiser also shows that speakers of
Deitsch recognize the difference between varieties of the language spoken
in Pennsylvania and the variety spoken outside of the state.
In the final chapter in the book, ''The English of the Swiss Amish of
Northeastern Indiana,'' Chad Thompson examines the use of English by
German-speaking Amish in Allen County, Indiana, and describes the attitudes
that Amish and non-Amish have toward the variety. Thompson finds that
English is no longer used by the Amish only to communicate with local
English speakers, but it is being used more for the Amish to communicate
among themselves. Thompson also notes that the English used by the Amish
and the varieties used in surrounding areas are becoming more distinct,
possibly due to younger women using English in the home but rarely having a
chance to use it outside the community.
In LANGUAGE VARIATION AND CHANGE IN THE AMERICAN MIDLAND, Murray and Simon
have compiled a volume that does many things well. Most importantly, the
articles use a variety of approaches to cover a wide range of issues in
Midland English. The articles are relatively consistent in attending to an
audience comprising specialized scholars as well as a more general
readership, and plenty of visuals as far as maps, tables, and figures are
provided in the book to illuminate some of the findings. While most of the
studies in the volume either assume or set out to prove the existence of a
Midland dialect, the volume does not totally shy away from the Midland
controversy, as it is given some attention in the introductory material and
some of the studies do present findings that question the existence of the
Midland dialect, resulting in a more well-rounded volume than if they had
ignored the controversy altogether.
Problems with the volume are few and are generally confined to what they
did not include as opposed to what they did. It might be helpful, for
instance, if the editors had discussed why they selected these papers for
the volume and why they categorized them as they did, either in the
introductory material or in an introduction to each section. For example,
it would be interesting to know how Murray and Simon thought the articles
in the fourth section related to the subject of variation in Midland
English, what influence languages like Spanish and Deitsch had on either
Midland English or the Midland region, and how this compared to their
influence elsewhere. This is a small matter, however, and certainly not
one that takes much away from the greater accomplishments of the volume.
With respect to individual papers, there is also far more to commend than
to criticize, and again the problems are typically more a matter of what
was not included rather than what was. For instance, more explanation is
needed to understand the characterizations of variants as ''yes,'' ''mostly
present,'' ''mostly absent,'' and ''no'' in Table 2 of Ash's paper (although the
collapsing of these categories later in the paper means that this is not a
problem in the final analysis). Despite some minor problems, however, all
the papers in this volume are generally well-written and interesting.
LANGUAGE VARIATION AND CHANGE IN THE AMERICAN MIDLAND serves as a
considerable contribution to the growing body of literature on Midland
English and, secondarily, is a worthy successor to Fraser's ''HEARTLAND''
ENGLISH. The volume is a must-read book for anyone interested in the state
of Midland English in the 21st century.
Frazer, Timothy, ed. (1993). ''Heartland'' English: Variation and
Transition in the American Midwest. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Lamont Antieau recently completed a dissertation on rural Colorado English
at the University of Georgia. He is currently creating a website for
presenting and disseminating data collected for the Linguistic Atlas of the
Western States, and his primary research interests are in the areas of
language and place, pragmatics, and corpus linguistics.