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How to Speak Midwestern: Iowa as "Middle of the Middle"

Photo by Amy Mayer
Iowa Public Radio

Michigan native and Chicago resident Edward McClelland, author of "Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President," has written his first book on language and appropriately has chosen to focus on the Midwest. 

While Iowa competes for attention in the book ("How to Speak Midwestern") with Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and other states, McClelland told Charity that he has spent enough time in the Hawkeye State to deem it part of the "Midland" region (which goes as far south as Missouri) and what we might call our "accent" is, he says, "the least noticed of all U.S. accents, putting Iowa in the "middle of the middle." 

Accents, McClelland told us, are an important part of regional identity and an important part of being a Midwesterner "is believing you don't have an accent."  He told Charity that in Chicago, for example, there are so many former Iowans and other Midwest ex-pats living there that only about ten percent of the city's residents still have the stereotypical inflections we normally associate with the city.  "Millennials moving around moderate their accents to meet more of a national standard," he said.  "This influences speech patterns more than their parents and grandparents did--accents come more from peers than parents."

On a lighter note, the author told Charity that to be a real Iowan, you need to "talk through your nose--it's that Midwest nasality combined with using a 'hard r" that makes you sound like pirates with head colds."  And on the cultural side, he says Midwesteners don't want to sound critical or hurt anyone's feelings, so they develop "code words" that allow them to avoid stating an opinion altogether.  His examples: "interesting" and "different," which epitomizes the passive-aggressive sentence.  The result is, he tells us, "In the Midwest, you are never certain if you are being complimented or insulted."

Lindsey Moon is IPR's Digital Producer
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Dennis Reese is the mid-day host for Iowa Public Radio.