The Sounds of Ethncity, Race and Region

how-to-speak-midwesternIn today’s New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler reviewed a new book, How to Speak Midwestern. Interestingly, the headline in the print edition is:  “Midwesterner, Yes, You Do Have an Accent”. This phrasing is a gentle nudge to rethink what might be perceived as a norm, which, of course, is actually as inflected as anything else. Apparently, this truth is one of author Edward McClelland’s motivations for writing this book.

In the review, Schuessler comes out from behind the curtain of reviewer neutrality. She pronounces, self-deprecatingly: “Full disclosure: Like Mrs. Clinton, I’m a white woman who grew up in the Chicago suburbs. When it comes to pinched nasal vowels and strongly pronounced r’s (a phenomenon linguists call rhoticity), I’m With Her.”

Schuessler also notes: “The heavily industrialized (and segregated) Inland North–as dialectologists call the region stretching from roughly from central New York across the Great Lakes–‘has a wider divergence between white and black speech than anywhere in the country,’ Mr. McClleland writes, with African-Americans largely maintaining speech patterns brought from the South. (Mr. McClelland notes the existence of various Midwestern ‘blacaccents,’ though he doesn’t explore them.)”

Such “blaccents” are not the only subjects deserving of further study by critical race scholars. So is the consideration of the visual. Tellingly, the designers for McClelland’s book eschew figures for its cover, as if to acknowledge the demographic diversity of the region’s populace. Smart move.

Consider the ideology of an earlier publication (1960) with almost the same title:


This book is a “humor” offering. See Google Books for a brief excerpt:

“To speak good Midwestern you need to: Get gear’d up by studyin’ this book. Before you know it you’ll be speaking Midwestern Pertnear as good as Everybody.”

Thomas’s cover design is serious in its invocation, i.e., the Midwest is American Gothic (1930). It is a move to use the authority of the original painting, without any awareness of its intended satire.




Author: Jacqueline Francis

Writer, educator, curator, arts consultant, and occasional artist in San Francisco, California. Follow me on Twitter @JackieFrancisSF and Instagram--jackiefrancissf

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: