The Midwestern accent is well worth studying, because there’s more than one. There’s the Inland North accent, spoken along the lower Great Lakes; the Midland accent, spoken on the prairies; and the North Central accent, spoken in the North Woods. Here are guides to all three.

Inland North

“C’n I hayv a bayg of iiice? It’s reeely hahhht today!”

You’ve probably heard this woman in line at the Jewels. She’s white. She’s ethnic. She’s middle aged. She grew up around here. Maybe she went to a Catholic girls’ school. Her name is Nancy. She pronounces it Nayen-cy. Her diction displays all the effects of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, a feature of the Inland North accent region.

Yeah, Midwesterners, we have an accent. Inland North is so distinct it’s been parodied on Saturday Night Live. “The Superfans” made “Da Bears” a national catchphrase, exaggerating the fronted “o” of Chicagoans who love “Polish sahhhsage.” Cecily Strong did a spot-on impersonation of “Michugun Governur Gretchun Whitmur.” Strong grew up in Oak Park, so she’s heard those vowels. Family Guy did a cutaway bit about a Wisconsin nymphomaniac who cries “Oh Gahhhd” and “Oh cray-ep” during sex.

Inland North is a nasal strain of English spoken from Rochester, New York, on the east to St. Louis and Milwaukee on the west, an area that is roughly coterminous with the Rust Belt, and that certainly includes Chicago. The Inland North accent as we know it began to develop in the early 20th Century, as a result of one of the most remarkable linguistic transitions of the modern era: the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. The changes were first detected by linguists doing field research in Chicago and Detroit in the late 1960s. In his book Dialect Diversity in America, William Labov describes the Shift as a series, or chain, of pronunciation changes.

“The initiating event appears to be the shift of short-a in bat to a front, raised position, a sound very much like the vowel of yeah,” Labov wrote. “Into the gap created by this shift, the vowel of got moves forward. In the most extreme form, cot sounds like cat, block like black, socks like sacks…The vowel of bought then moves down and front toward this position, along with other members of the ‘long open-o’ word class: law, talk, cross, dawn, dog, etc…Short-e then shifts to the back toward short-u, producing a confusion between desk and dusk as short-e enters short-u territory.”

Like most regional accents, though, the Northern Cities Vowel Shift is beginning to fade. Today, I mostly hear it in speakers over 50. A few years ago, I went on an accent safari to Wrong’s Tap in Beverly, one of the few neighborhoods where the Classic Chicago Accent still assaults the ears. I was not disappointed. During the Bears game, an older gentleman shouted across the bar, “Hey, what are da squares for dis quarter?” “Zero and chree,” came the response. On the train back into the city, though, I struck up a conversation with a 30-something firefighter from Mount Greenwood. If anyone can have a Chicago accent, it’s a firefighter from Mount Greenwood. But his speech was generic. Television English.

“My dad talks that way,” he told me; “but my mom kind of beat it out of me.”

Famous Inland North speakers:

  • Robert Forster, actor, Rochester, New York
  • Terry McAuliffe, politician, Syracuse, New York
  • Gretchen Whitmer, politician, East Lansing, Michigan
  • Iggy Pop, musician, Ypsilanti, Michigan
  • John Goodman, actor, St. Louis, Missouri
  • Dennis Franz, actor, Maywood, Illinois
  • Ron Coomer, broadcaster, Chicago
  • Dennis Kucinich, politician, Cleveland
  • The girls in the Eagle Insurance ad, Chicago 


“Anymore, there ain’t one honest person left in Warshington. We gotta get Trump back in there. He’ll make all those clowns get with the progrum.”

If that’s not Darren Bailey, former candidate for governor, current candidate for Congress, it’s one of his neighbors down in Clay County. Central Illinoisans are speakers of the Midland accent, which occupies the space between the Inland North and Appalachian accents — a latitudinal band from Western Pennsylvania to Eastern Iowa — and serves as a transition zone between them, just as that same region serves to mediate the political and cultural extremes of the North and the South.

The Midland accent has its roots in the port cities of the mid-Atlantic, particularly Philadelphia, a debarking point for Scots-Irish immigrants fleeing Ulster’s religious conflicts. By the time they arrived, most of the coastal land had been claimed, so they moved inland, following Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap to the Ohio River, and later, the National Road from Cumberland, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois. Midland is the least accented of the American accents — that is, the least likely to be noticed by folks from other parts of the country. Its most famous speaker was Fred Rogers, host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and a native of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. On May 1, 1969, Rogers charmed a crusty Rhode Island senator into appropriating $20 million for educational television.

“My first program was on WQED fifteen years ago, and its budget was $30,” Rogers told Senator John O. Pastore. He pronounced the word program as “progrum.” Ago sounded like “ag-ao.” And the “o” in dollar was backed, so the word came out as “dawler.” These are all features of Midland speech, but they don’t register on the ear of most Americans like a Southern drawl, or a Northern Cities Vowel Shift.

Intrusive “r”: Saying “worsh” for “wash” or calling the nation’s capital

“Worshington.” Why did “r” intrude on “wash”? One theory is that older Philadelphians, for example, still say “wooter” for “water.” The similarity to the “o” in “or” may have made it seem logical to insert that letter.

Fronted “o”: Among heavily accented Midland speakers, the word “no” sounds like “nao,” and “ozone” like “aozaone.” This pronunciation is shared with their distant cousins in Philadelphia and Baltimore, the cities from which the Midland accent derives.

Positive anymore: Among most English speakers, “anymore” denotes something that’s no longer happening: “Oh, that store’s not open anymore.” In the Midlands, however, it can be used to indicate continuing action.

“Anymore, there’s so much traffic you can hardly drive there.”

Like many other Midland features, the usage originated in Northern Ireland, and can still be heard there.

Famous Midland speakers:

  • Fred Rogers, children’s television host, Latrobe, Pennsylvania
  • John Kasich, politician, McKeesport, Pennsylvania
  • Jim Edgar, politician, Charleston, Illinois
  • Mike Shannon, St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster, St. Louis
  • Bob Knight, basketball coach, Massillon, Ohio

North Central

The North Central accent was made famous in the movie, and later the TV series, Fargo. The Coen Brothers stereotyped Minnesotans as over-agreeable yokels who speak a sing-songy English larded with such corny sayings as “you betcha” and “yer darn tootin’.” That’s an accent that was still heard when the Coens were growing up in Minnesota in the 1950s and ’60s, but they left for college in New York in the mid-1970s. By the time they returned to film Fargo, 20 years later, the accent they set out to caricature was dead and buried, or living in a nursing home. So were some of the phrases that made their way into the script. “Yes sir, you betcha,” an enthusiastic affirmative meant to exemplify Minnestoans’ agreeableness, is today only used in the context of mocking stereotypically Minnesotan behavior.

The best Minnesota accent ever committed to film was not delivered by Frances McDormand in Fargo, but by Kurt Russell, who played 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks — a Twin Cities-area native — in the movie Miracle. Russell’s accent is clipped, brisk, nasal, capturing not only the no-nonsense nature of the man he’s portraying, but the practicality and restraint of Minnesotans.

Minnesota is in the heart of the North Central dialect region, which also includes the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, northern Wisconsin, northern Iowa and the eastern Dakotas. Germans and Scandinavians arrived in the late 19th Century, working in logging and mining. Norwegian and Swedish both have pitch patterns, in which words’ meanings differ according to pronunciation. They also include words with elongated vowels. Those features contributed to the sing-songy cadence heard among Scandinavian immigrants and their descendants. From Swedish, Minnesotans acquired monophthongization, the compression of a double-stepped vowel into a single sound. Most pronounce “know” by slightly dropping the pitch of the “o.” In Minnesota, it’s pronounced “knooow.” This is also results in “Minnesohhta.”

Yoopanese, spoken in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is a sub-dialect of North Central.

“So, ah, I gotta take a shore and then I’ll be over to your hoase in aboat an oar, eh.”

That’s a Yooper telling you he has to take a shower, and he’ll be over at your house in about an hour. In the western U.P., the stronghold of Yoopanese, Finns are the dominant ethnic group. They arrived in the late 19th Century to work in the copper mines, speaking a non-Indo European language that had nothing in common with English. Finnish was such an important influence on Yoopanese that the dialect is also called “Finglish.”

Take, for example, the pronunciation of “shower.” Stressing the initial vowel sound is a feature of Finnish, which overwhelmed the American English tendency to pronounce “ow” as a diphthong. Finnish lacks the “th” sound, so pronouncing “them,” “there” and “through” as “dem,” “dere” and “t’rough” is the source of much U.P. humor. A band called Da Yoopers recorded a song called “Second Week of Deer Camp.” (“It’s da second week of deer camp/ And all da guys are here/ We drink, play cards and shoot da bull/ But never shoot no deer.”)

And then there’s the all-purpose “eh,” which is added to the ends of sentences all over the North Country. It’s a “tag question,” a conversational cue that either confirms a listener’s attentiveness, or invites him to offer his own opinion or information. Suppose you’re in the U.P., wearing a shirt with the name of your high school football team. If a Yooper looks at you and says, “Sullivan Tigers, eh?,” what he means is “Sullivan Tigers. Never heard of them. Tell me more.”

Some other examples of proper “eh” usage:

“Pretty cold today, eh?”
“Not as cold as it was last week. I had to jump my wife’s car twice.”


“Packers are looking pretty good today, eh?”
“Well, they’re playing the Bears.”


“So I’m in my tree stand, eh, and I see this six-pointer walk by.”

Hope youse all got something out of this tutorial, eh.

Famous North Central speakers:

  • Jesse Ventura, wrestler and politician, Minneapolis
  • Steven Avery, subject of Making a Murderer, Manitowoc, Wisconsin
  • Sarah Palin, politician, Wasilla, Alaska
  • Michelle Bachman, politician, Waterloo, Iowa
  • Garrison Keillor, humorist, Anoka, Minnesota
  • Bob Dylan, musician, Hibbing, Minnesota