English faculty member finding interest in 'Yooper Talk' strong as ever, gaining larger virtual audiences

Her book exploring the regional language, culture and history of Upper Peninsula residents is a few years old, but Kathryn Remlinger finds interest in her research remains steady, even during the pandemic.

Remlinger, professor of English, said she actually thought her presentations would halt because of public health restrictions on gatherings. Instead, she has been asked to give virtual presentations for groups, which allows her to expand her reach geographically and is a factor, she believes, in leading to even larger audiences.

She gave a presentation in June for the Historical Society of Michigan based on her book, "Yooper Talk: Dialect as Identity in Michigan's Upper Peninsula," and has heard from local libraries as well.

"I like the fact that there can be wider public outreach, especially because I want to create awareness about language and how attitudes and how we understand a history and place helps us understand certain groups of people," Remlinger said.

A bumper sticker that says "Say yah to da U.P., eh!"
In 1983, this bumper sticker was printed by Jack Bowers of Marquette in response to the "Say Yes to Michigan" tourism campaign.
Image credit - Courtesy of Kathryn Remlinger

Indeed, audiences share her fascination with the region, which she said is rich in history and has a proud culture uniquely shaped by geography and immigration.

From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, most of those who immigrated to the U.P. were non-native-English speakers and learned English from those with the same origins, leading to an accented English language, Remlinger said. 

Another feature of the settlement pattern of the northwestern U.P. is that one of the last and largest groups of immigrants to arrive were those from Finland, Remlinger said, and unlike many other working class populations of that era, they were literate. That meant those who were Finnish maintained their native language through more generations than did other immigrant groups.

What evolved in subsequent generations is a culture with distinctive words -- "you betcha," "eh" -- and other characteristics that set it apart from that of Lower Peninsula Michiganders, Remlinger said. The problem was that for many decades, that uniqueness could face stigmatization and even ridicule.

In fact, Remlinger said she still receives jokes from people making fun of the dialect.

But she also says the region has come a long way from cringing at the term "Yooper" to embracing it. Tourism has played a role in creating pride behind the term, as does the media. A prime example of U.P. pride and humor is the musical group "Da Yoopers," which on its Facebook page has this to say about band interests: "Complaining about the snow."

"Welcome to Yooperland" sign
Tourism has helped reinforce the 'Yooper' identity now embraced by many residents of the Upper Peninsula.
Image credit - Courtesy of Kathryn Remlinger
Baked goods with the sign referring to them as "bakery."
In the U.P. dialect, "bakery" refers to the actual baked goods, not the operation for making them.
Image credit - Courtesy of Kathryn Remlinger
Billboard showing the correct way to pronounce "sauna."
A local business helps with the correct pronunciation of "sauna."
Image credit - Courtesy of Kathryn Remlinger

The challenging climate is one element forging the toughness and independence that is part of the Yooper identity, Remlinger noted. Another one is perseverance through tough economic circumstances. 

All that is Yooper is in the language, which is why Remlinger is passionate about exploring it. She also believes the distinctive language sparks curiosity in Michiganders and those who want to hear her presentations. 

"Language in general totally fascinates people. When you start talking about dialects and accents, people respond to it," Remlinger said. "Languages are badges of identity – it’s what makes us human in some ways."

Magnet showing the correct pronunciation of "pasty."
This magnet helps with the pronunciation of a beloved food in the U.P.
Image credit - Courtesy of Kathryn Remlinger

More about the U.P. from Remlinger

Examples of characteristic sounds:

[d] for (th): "Say yah to da UP, eh"; "Escanaba in da Moonlight"

[s] for (sh): shot [sat]

Back and low []: pasty, camp

Examples of characteristic vocabulary:

Make wood: To cut firewood (Canadian French)

Yous: Plural "you” (Irish English)

Ja, yah: ‘yes’ (German, Swedish, Danish, and Finnish jo)

Examples of characteristic grammar and word order:

Absence of article the and preposition to when used to indicate a motion toward or into a location: "Let’s go mall.” "I went post office.” Language transfer from Finnish.

General absence of prepositions (in, at) and articles (a, an, the). Language transfer from Finnish.

Tags eh and hey: "Have a nice day, eh." "That's a pretty dress, hey.” Language transfer from Cornish English (eh), Ojibwe (en), and/or Canadian French (hien).


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