Badge of identity: Researchers say 'yah' to exploring how one word can connect people

Can one word convey a cultural bond through generations, indicate a strong regional identity,  endure as a part of everyday conversation and connect two linguistics experts on different continents?


"Yah" is a word prevalent in the Upper Peninsula dialect, a longtime research area of Kathryn Remlinger, professor of English. A popular bumper sticker incorporates the term in this phrase: "Say yah to da U.P., eh!"

"Languages are badges of identity. They are one way we can show where we're from and who our people are," Remlinger said.

A green bumper sticker says, "Say yah to da U.P., eh!"
Image credit - Photo courtesy of Kathryn Remlinger

It also was the word that helped her connect with a fellow linguistics expert at an American Dialect Society luncheon, leading them to collaborate. Elizabeth Peterson, from the University of Helsinki in Finland, is studying how "yah" is used by residents in Sanpete County, Utah.

They recently presented their joint research at “'Yah for Yes is OK’: Ideological Functions and Meanings of Yah in Two Heritage Language communities,” at the Workshop on Immigrant Languages in the Americas. And they plan to continue collaborating on their study of how much the use of one word can tell them.

Some of what they know so far: "Yah" seems to carry a strong regional identity marker in the U.P., and it is commodified – the bumper sticker being an example. No matter someone's heritage, they will use the word. But in Utah its scope is more limited to ethnic identity, they said. And it is not commodified.

Therein lies much of the fascination, the researchers said. Residents in both areas have grabbed onto this one utterance – used to convey affirmation, agreement or even polite disagreement – as an identity marker, but to varying degrees.

As linguists, the researchers have honed in on the prominent immigrant languages in both regions, and they note that many contained "yah." But interestingly, Finnish, a strong presence in the U.P., does not feature that word, Remlinger said.

Peterson said that the process of what linguists call "enregisterment" comes in stages. While at one time those in the U.P. likely would talk about how "yah" connected them, they have moved beyond that kind of outward awareness to the word becoming ingrained in the regional culture, she said.

In Utah, meanwhile, those residents are at an earlier stage of recognition about what the word means to them, Peterson said.

"When I would ask people, 'What about you is Danish?' they would explicitly say, 'I say yah.' So it's meaningful to them," Peterson said. "They attach this meaning to it that is part of their identity, not necessarily of Utah or Sanpete County – which is what you get in the U.P. – but rather being Danish."

When asked if she sees the term becoming enregistered in Utah as it has in the U.P., Peterson said she isn't sure.

The difference in how much "yah" is established in these regions adds to the rich research potential on the social impact of the term, Remlinger and Peterson said. They plan to explore how the age of residents affect usage of the term, and also are keeping in mind that other areas of North America could provide similar insight.


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