Keely Wolter first knew she had an accent when she was growing up in St. Paul.
“I didn’t think it was as strong as it actually was,” she said.
But since then, she’s pursued an acting career, and later studied at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. These days, she’s a voice and accent coach. She works with actors, broadcasters, professors, you name it — anyone who wants to be heard and understood a certain way.
And she knows all about the accent she grew up with: the Minnesotan accent.
The Minnesotan accent is something you’ve probably either had, or imitated. Celebrated actor Ewan McGregor called it “bonkers” at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards while he was accepting an award for Best Actor in a Limited Series for his work on FX’s crime/drama series, “Fargo.” The show is based on the 1996 Coen Brothers film by the same name.
Some Minnesotans bristled upon hearing the accent onscreen.
“When the movie ‘Fargo’ came out, they’d say, ‘We don’t talk like that,’ “ Wolter said.
But most Minnesotans don’t understand that they do have an accent — or to what degree they have it, she says. Sometimes the first step with her clients is making them more aware of how they speak.
What is the
Minnesotans share roughly the same Upper Midwest accent with Iowa and Wisconsin. Even if some native speakers don’t notice it, there are people out there who make it their business to notice. Wolter isn’t the only one.
Paul Tilleson is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota working on his dissertation in linguistics. He’s also a St. Cloud native, which makes him a sort of Upper Midwest accent expert on two levels.
And no, the folks on “Fargo” are not a faithful execution of the Minnesotan accent.
“They’re exaggerated,” he said. “There’s some truth to the way it sounds … maybe a few older people in the area have (accents like that).”
He described the hallmarks of the roly-poly vowels that make the Minnesotan accent what it is. There’s the classic dipthonged “oh” sound — the one everyone from out of town puts into the word “Minne-SOH-dah” when they’re imitating you. There’s also the sort of flattened short “a” sound that makes “bag” sound like “baeg,” or “agriculture” sound like “aegriculture.”
“When I’m trying to teach a Minnesotan accent, I always tell people that Minnesotans are usually smiling a little bit, but it’s also kind of tense,” Wolter said.
There’s not a lot of space in the mouth and jaw when you speak with a Minnesotan accent. Wolter likes to tell her clients that’s because it’s so cold in Minnesota that everyone speaking in the local manner is trying to clench against the winter air.
The “oh” sound, Wolter said, is especially difficult to learn — or to get rid of.
“I hear people over-vocalize it and overdo it,” she said. “It gets really clipped and really nasal — which is great for sketch comedy.”
Meanwhile, that “oh” can be just as hard to shake. Some Minnesotans use her services because they’re a little ashamed of their accents, or worried about how they’ll be perceived.
“There’s a certain amount of shame associated with it,” she said. “People might think it makes them sound too cute, or too sweet, or even stupid.”
But Wolter loves the Minnesota accent, and not just because it’s hers. She’s working on a documentary film on the Minnesota accent. It’s in the very beginning phases now, but she’s already got some helpful footage from the Minnesota State Fair.
Future of ‘you betcha’
The Upper Midwest accent is like all aspects of language. It’s a living, changing thing. Tilleson said there’s literally a “vowel shift” happening in the Great Lakes area that’s expected to make its way into Minnesota.
“The vowels are changing,” he said. It’s turning the hardened “ah” sound in words like “Wisconsin” to something more like “Wis-can-sin.”
“It’s more common in the Milwaukee metro area,” he said.
That’s the nature of accents, he said. They change. There’s a prevailing understanding that TV and radio are what’s doing the changing — that the nightly news voices and everyone’s favorite characters on Netflix are influencing how the adults of tomorrow will speak — but according to Tilleson, that’s not really the case.
“TV or radio has a very negligible effect. It doesn’t have anything to do with an accent’s prestige or non-prestige,” he said. “We acquire the way we talk from a very young age.”
Every generation learns language from the previous one, and as a result of that translation, the language is changed — bit by bit, generation by generation.
“Every generation acquires the language differently than the previous generation,” he said. “One vowel changes to another, and that change causes a domino effect to happen.”
It’s been happening, he said, since Old English, when “cow” was pronounced “coo,” and “tide” was pronounced “teed.”
Change, Wolter said, is something she notices for accents across the United States. She always has to pay attention to what time period a play is set in, so she can be as accurate as possible with her coaching. She has had her own accent change over the course of her life, having lived in Ohio, Washington and London before coming back stateside. Now that she’s here, her Minnesotan accent has come back to the fore, but she never totally let it go.
“It tells people a lot about you when you meet them,” she said.