I am the epitome of a stereotypical Minnesotan. White, Norwegian-American, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, the only aspect I am missing is blonde hair and blue eyes. I am a perfect fit for Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon. However, one would never know from speaking to me that I spent the first eighteen years of my life in Minnesota. One would never know the intense love I have for water, having grown up in a town with seven lakes and a state with fourteen thousand, and having attended a high school right across from the Mississippi River and down the road from a waterfall. One would never know that I eat lefse, a Norwegian flatbread, every Christmas, or that for Christmas my junior year of high school, my parents gave me an iron so I could make krumkake, a Norwegian cookie. One would never know that I call my grandmother Farmor, Norwegian for “father’s mother” and called my grandfather Farfar before he passed away, Norwegian for “father’s father.” One would never know that I attended Norwegian heritage camp for a week the summer after fourth grade, and learned how to do rosemalling and hardanger. One would never know that my dream as an elementary schooler was to go to St. Olaf College, a historically Norwegian Lutheran school in Northfield, MN, and become a sociologist in Norway.
One would never know that I come from the upper midwest because in eighth grade, when I was home in Minnesotan and my older brother was in his first year at Princeton, I spoke with him on the phone and he told me how incredibly thick my accent was. He told me that no one would take me seriously out east, if I decided to go to college out there, if I kept my Minnesotan accent. He told me essentially that I needed to get rid of it if ever wanted to get anywhere as a scholar and professional. I remember speaking to him on the phone and hearing the neutrality in his accent, hearing the changes in his voice, the ways he was changing how he spoke in order to fit better into academia. I remember feeling like I had lost part of my brother and that when he came back, he would be different person than who he was when he left, even in the way he spoke.
However, as time progressed, and I did begin to look at schools on the East Coast, my accent slowly began to neutralize. I didn’t elongate my vowels as much. I fronted them more, rather than backing them. I spoke faster and crisper. I stopped raising certain vowels in my inflection. I both subconsciously and consciously tried to sound more like people I heard on television. I began to notice in movies and television shows that when people were shown as having Minnesotan accents, they were usually shown as being dumb or “folksy.” They weren’t really taken as intellectuals.
However, like anyone who has tried to replace their accent or language for another, assimilation is not perfect. I still find myself saying uff da, a phrase that is used as an exclamation in numerous contexts in Minnesota, often, usually quietly and to myself. I still find myself switching back to my Minnesotan accent when I’m really excited about something or it reminds me of home. I particularly have trouble sometimes saying, “I know,” in a neutral accent, when I am really in agreement with something. When I am home, in particular, I find myself switching back to my accent with certain friends, especially if theirs is particularly strong. I think what I have found to be most interesting, and also unsettling, after spending time on the East Coast, is how much I notice people’s accents back home, just like my brother did back when I was in eighth grade. When I was younger, I couldn’t hear that people had accents. The way they spoke sounded normal. However, now that I have spent time outside of the midwest, I can’t unhear people’s accents and every time I go back, they seem to be stronger. It almost feels like I am a foreigner in my own state, and that because I will never fully have a neutral accent, that I am in this liminal state where I will never fully be a non-Midwesterner or a Midwesterner. I am somewhere in-between, especially as I spend more and more time outside of Minnesota.
I think this aspect of my identity is interesting, and in some aspects painful in terms of the fact that I am no longer who I was as a child, and that I have had to change who I was to fit within certain structures. The change is painful in the same way that growing up in general is painful. However, the changes I have had to make are in no way on the level of pain and humiliation that certain other linguistic groups experience in the U.S. Switching from a Minnesotan to a neutral American accent is an extremely easy process compared to learning a new language or dialect. Moreover, the ways that Minnesotans are stereotyped, if they are stereotyped, is nowhere on the same level as the ways certain other groups are stereotyped, from people in Appalachia to people who speak African American Vernacular English to people just arriving from various countries around the world. I think, from my small degree of experience, that I can empathize with people who have to change their accents and languages to fit within certain structures, and who find themselves needing to change in order to be successful. I know what it is like to lose part of who you are, even if the what I have lost and the way I lost it might be relatively nominal.
Note: This piece was part of a linguistic autobiography assignment for my Language Minority Education class. I thought I would share it with all of you since I think it ties in well with my last blog post about how we don’t really realize we’re changing until we’ve changed, and also the confusion that often occurs as we grow up and go through life. I definitely want to acknowledge the experience I highlight here as being nowhere close to the pain and frustration people experience when they come to the U.S. speaking another language and have to learn English in ways that do not acknowledge their emerging bilingualism and present funds of knowledge. We are a country of people straddling borders and boundaries, in ways that aren’t always pretty.