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GVSU Professor Explains Origin of Yooper Dialect

Wendy Reed, Townsquare Media
Wendy Reed, Townsquare Media

Since 2000, Kathryn Remlinger, professor of English at Grand Valley State University, has been examining Yooper dialect, its relationship to the U.P. and the idea of the Yooper identity.

While Remlinger’s research focuses more on identity rather than details of the dialect, the idea of a Yooper doesn’t exist without both.

The origin of the term Yooper dates back to 1979 when a newspaper in Escanaba had a contest to see what people in the U.P. would call themselves, and Yooper won.

Yooper words and phrases include “You betcha,” and “Say yah to da U.P., eh,” or words pronounced distinctively, such as “sow-na” instead of “sauna.”

Remlinger said the migration of Finnish-speaking people in the early 1900s greatly impacted the development of the Yooper dialect, including the exclusion of prepositions when talking about movement toward a place.

“Instead of saying ‘I went to the post office,’ people would say, ‘I went post office,’ or they would say, ‘Let’s go casino,’ instead of ‘Let’s go to the casino,'” Remlinger said. “Finnish doesn’t use prepositions, so that’s a direct language transfer.”

Aside from immigration patterns, Remlinger said tourism and the media have had major impacts on the Yooper identity, especially since construction of the Mackinaw Bridge in 1957 made traveling to the Upper Peninsula more accessible.

“Over the past 16 years, I’ve noticed there is more Yooper-themed merchandise than I’ve ever seen before, so it’s becoming really recognizable, even on a national scale,” Remlinger said. “For example, a lot of people have the ‘Say yah to da U.P., eh!’ bumper sticker who aren’t from the U.P., and Yooper was even the topic of a few questions on ‘Jeopardy’ in both 2003 and 2014.”

Yooper received even more national attention when the word was added to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in 2014.

“This came about after years of a man playing Scrabble who wanted to use Yooper, but his friend wouldn’t accept it because the word wasn’t in the Scrabble dictionary,” Remlinger said. “So, he solicited dictionaries to include it until Merriam-Webster finally did.”

Remlinger has been presenting her findings at various national conferences, including the recent Linguistic Landscape 8 International Workshop at the University of Liverpool in the U.K.

Remlinger has been focusing her research in the northwestern area of the Upper Peninsula, specifically from the greater Marquette area up into the Keweenaw Peninsula.

“When people hear what they think is Yooper talk, that’s the most iconic area,” Remlinger said. “It’s the most isolated area, so there hasn’t been as much contact with other dialects that could affect Yooper dialect.”

The culmination of Remlinger’s 16-year project is her forthcoming book, Yooper Talk: Dialect as Identity in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

During her initial research from 2000-2002, Remlinger interviewed 75 lifelong residents ages 12-92. Since then, she has revisited these residents to see if their perceptions of the Yooper identity have changed over the years.

 

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