It's not what you say

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"Speaking American: How Y'all, Youse, and You Guys Talk - A Visual Guide" by Josh Katz.

Speaking American
How Y'all, Youse, and You Guys Talk
By Josh Katz
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
224 pp. $25.

How to Speak Midwestern
By Edward McClelland
Belt. 120 pp. $16.95.

Reviewed by Jim Higgins


Hailing from the Galápagos of American speech, i.e., Pittsburgh, where cultural and geographic isolation allowed such mutations as yins and redd up to flourish, I enjoy hearing variety in the way people talk.

"An important element of Midwestern identity is believing you don't have an accent - that you speak a neutral brand of standardized English from which all other Americans deviate," Edward McClelland writes in How to Speak Midwestern, one of two complementary new books about how Americans talk.

Of course, that isn't true. And McClelland makes a good case for understanding Wisconsin as rich in accents and regional differences.

Josh Katz's visually appealing Speaking American: How Y'all, Youse, and You Guys Talk turns more than 350,000 responses to an online dialect quiz into a beautiful book of informative maps. For example, the carbonated beverage I drank as a boy was called pop in Pittsburgh, but is soda in Milwaukee, and might be called coke in Alabama, even if it wasn't a cola.

Though most of America calls the thing we drink from at school either a water fountain or a drinking fountain, Katz's map highlights eastern Wisconsin (and, inexplicably, Rhode Island) as home to people who call it a bubbler. Although here, I must demur a bit. It has been a long time since I heard someone here refer to a bubbler in an unself-conscious way, without humorous or locally ironic intent. Language, as both books point out, is always changing, as is the world around us. The first thing I notice on any college campus I visit is the prevalence of stations for filling personal water bottles where simple bubblers once stood.

Katz mines his data to create tip sheets for different regions, including "How to Pretend You're From Wisconsin," a disappointing little essay in an otherwise wonderful book. The largest two of its four paragraphs are devoted to a discussion of cheesehead, a former insult repurposed as marketing image.

Regional accents, McClelland argues, are strongest today among "whites who have never left their hometowns or graduated from college, and who hold jobs that require little contact with people outside the region: police officers, firefighters, tradespeople, retail clerks, truck drivers, assembly-line workers, hairstylists. (The TV show Cops is great for accents.)

As already evidenced, McClelland leavens his writing with pop-culture references (including Fred Rogers as the archetypal speaker of Midland dialect) and touches of humor. He's also not above moments of disapproval, such as his disdain for the increasing popularity of you guys as a form of second-person plural for people of any and all genders. (Yes, I plead guilty to having addressed mixed-gender, even all-female groups of people as "you guys.") He'd like to see youse, y'all, and, I suspect, even Pittsburgh's yins reclaim some of the ground they have lost to the awkward you guys.

McClelland devotes half of his book to glossaries of words peculiar to individual states and cities in the Midwest. The eight-plus pages of Wisconsin glossary add up to a goofy assemblage of local color, culture, and usage. I would have preferred more discussion of true linguistic marvels such as "Ya Hey Dere!" and "Stallis" (short for West Allis), and less attention paid to sports and marketing mascots and images.

Both books remind us of the richness and variety of the way we speak - and argue for respect all round.

This review originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.