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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 347-349

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Regional Complexities

Are Rural Dialects Endangered Like Island Dialects?

Timothy C. Frazer, Western Illinois University


The Midland dialects of the middle western United States originate in Pennsylvania. Features of both grammar and pronunciation set the Midland dialects apart from Northern and Southern. Midland speakers pronounce a stronger r in words like far or thirty than do Northerners or Southerners and may pronounce word pairs like Don and Dawn exactly the same. Midland speakers are also more likely to say the cat wants in or the grass needs mowed.

Although it may be hard to prove conclusively, the Midland distinctions which arose in Pennsylvania seem most likely due to settlement there by many Ulster Scots in the eighteenth century. In any case, some of the Midland speakers moved south into Appalachia, where their Midland dialect acquired some Southern features as well, so that words like town sound like "TAY-oon" to a Northerner, and due and road sound like "DEE-oo" and "RAY-ood" (technically, we would say that certain vowels are fronted). To Northern ears, I might sound like "ah," which I call FLATTENING below. Thus, because some Midland speakers entered the Midwest by way of Kentucky and Tennessee, while others simply pushed west from Pennsylvania, linguists sometimes talk about distinct North Midland (or West Midland) and South Midland dialects, as opposed to a single Midland variety.

In Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and points west, the Midland (especially South Midland) dialects have acquired a mostly rural identity (Frazer 1983). And since rural life is threatened, I wonder if the Midland dialects are equally threatened. Dialect death is being documented on the islands of the East Coast, and in the coming century I hope that linguists will watch to see whether the Midland dialects, more widespread with more speakers than the island dialects but threatened nevertheless, will survive.

Recently, Schilling-Ellis and Wolfram (1999) extended the concept of endangered languages to dialects. In examining Ocracoke, North Carolina, [End Page 347] and Smith Island, Virginia, these scholars find both dialects endangered, but under different circumstances. Ocracoke residents are losing their isolation and hence their dialect is threatened by DISSIPATION as it acquires some of the features of mainland dialects. Smith Island, on the other hand, is sinking into Chesapeake Bay and will have to be abandoned, ending, presumably, the existence of both the Smith Island community and its dialect, which undergoes CONCENTRATION as "linguistic distinctiveness is heightened or intensified among fewer speakers" (486).

My own experience of three decades' study of rural dialects in the Midwestern United States has always included a supposition that these dialects--in particular, the Midland dialects which coexist with Inland Northern in the lower Midwest--are threatened. Rural life based on an agricultural economy has been threatened in this area for almost a century as farm populations have declined and urban populations have grown. The Inland Northern dialect, meanwhile, has become established since early settlement not only in Midwestern cities but in broadcast media and in dictionaries as well (Frazer 1983b, 1993). Are the Midland dialects approaching what Nancy Dorian (1986, 72) calls the "'tip'" to the "dominant language"?

The data for Midland dialects are confusing, especially for features traditionally called South Midland. Among residents of McDonough County, Illinois, born before and after 1890, for example, a sample of linguistic atlas surveys suggested that South Midland vocabulary was used much more frequently by residents with earlier birthdates than by those born later (Frazer 1983a). Among speakers currently living, vocabulary differences are hard to find, especially if we look for South Midland words like light bread 'white bread' or sookie! 'a call to cows', which are now kept in feedlots and therefore rarely called.

Among a sample of western Illinois residents tape-recorded during the late 1970s, however, the results were less straightforward. Phonologically, raised and fronted /au/ (as in town)--a South Midland pronunciation feature--was actually MORE frequent among residents born after 1930 than among those born before 1910 and was more frequently used by women, a sign of...


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