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.