Talking about Words
With Prof. Richard W. Bailey
Yooper – It's Michigan's second language, eh?
In the warm-up to a taping of "Wait, Wait… Don't Tell me" in Ypsilanti last spring, the humorist Mo Rocca asserted in a rasping East Coast voice: "I'm a Yooper."
Probably the audience greeted this claim with bemused silence since he doesn't look or sound as if he's ever been north of the Mackinac Bridge. An inquiring reporter asked Rocca later if he'd ever been to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and he admitted the obvious: He hadn't.
"I want to be an honorary Yooper," he told her, and said he already knew the terms flatlander and troll.
Where to start? First off, the Upper Peninsula has few heights to bring on chest-tightening acrophobia. South of Seney and into the National Wildlife Refuge, you can travel for some miles without bumping into a 10-foot contour on your topographic map. Whether it's flatter there in the UP than in the portions of Saginaw and Bay counties visible from atop the Zilwaukee Bridge could be debated.
Still, it's hard to imagine trolls and Yoopers going mano a mano about which part of Michigan is flatter than the other. Flatlanders, in the Green Mountains of Vermont, are scorned as visitors or migrants from southern New England or New York. Residents of the High Sierras look down on the flatlanders of coastal California.
Hereabouts we are all flatlanders. And the flatlanders who live in the lower peninsula are trolls since, like the ogre in "The Three Billy Goats Gruff," they live under the Mackinac Bridge. We admire mountains: Mt. Clemens or Mt. Pleasant. But we don't have many, and certainly not in the places bearing those names.
So what's a Yooper?
The American Heritage is the only dictionary so far to include Yooper. The entry starts with a marginal bold diamond to indicate that it is a "regional" word.
♦ Yoo ● per … n. Michigan & Northern Wisconsin. A native or inhabitant of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. [From UP.]
The editor at Houghton Mifflin who composed this entry is a Michigander, Steven R. Kleinedler, and he's convinced he heard Yooper when he was growing up, and he has been alert to its spreading use since he moved east to the haunts of the would-be Yooper and East Coast Comic Mo Rocca.
Yooper hasn't been around for long. The earliest published use discovered by the Dictionary of American Regional English dates to August 5, 1979. On that day, the Escanaba Daily Press published a contest to name the folks who live in the UP. Sixty-five candidate names were proposed, including Pastian, Skeeter-Eater, Michupper and Bush Turkey.
Nominated by Brett Crawford of Bark River: Yooper. It won.
But Yooper was not yet out of the woods. In 1987, the Pittsburgh Press spelled the word "U-P- er." Even the place seemed impossibly far away.
Ski Magazine employed the word in 1995. (The National Ski Hall of Fame is in Ishpeming; a 4,000-year-old ski is on display there). That article described the UP's Congressional representative as "a folksy 'Yooper' from the thick forests of Michigan's Upper Peninsula." The quotation marks reveal that Ski Magazine still regarded Yooper as an exotic word.
(The editors at Merriam-Webster caught wind of Yooper and collected these and other quotations to track its use. Thanks to Joanne DesPres for letting me have a look at them.)
Before the contest, there had been some interest in the way Yoopers talk. In 1971, Heino A. "Hap" Puotinen published a Finglish Handbook (Finglish < Finnish + English) with such entries as peispall 'baseball', which he thought was a typical Yooper pronunciation. Since lots of Finns had settled in the UP, it seemed right to connect Yooper English with Finnish.
The watershed year for the Yooper way of talking was 1993, when Joe Potila and Jim DeCaire published The Yooperland Dictionary: A Tourist's Guide to a Better Understanding of the Yoopanese Language. The two lexicographers were also founding members of the "country" rock-and-roll band, Da Yoopers, which flashed onto the national scene in 1986. Their dictionary included entries that have subsequently been enshrined in the Yooper linguistic repertoire: Holywha 'Yooper Expletive,' pank 'to pack snow down', and tarts 'tings you trow at a tartboard'.
Interviewed by an Associated Press reporter in 1986, Joe Potila adopted the "aw-shucks" manner proper to a country singer: "Pretty soon, maybe the whole world will know what a Yooper is."
Escanaba in da Moonlight, a play and 2001 film by Jeff Daniels (a troll from Chelsea), gave the whole world—or a big piece of it—the sounds of Yooper. According to the papers, Daniels modeled his dialogue on the English of Ken Myllyla of Escanaba, who gave the voice the Finnish turn Hap Puotinen thought essential to the Yooper identity back in 1971.
Most Yoopers are embarrassed by the film, and the ones I have asked claim not to know people who talk that way. And, in fact, there aren't many of them who do. People at the eastern end say they sound "Canadian" and mention "eh?" at the end of sentences. People at the western end say they sound "Minnesotan" and give the drawn-out "oh" in the name of that state as an example. People in the middle think Jeff Daniels was playing a joke on them.
The culminating moment for the Yooper way of talking, so far, was the introduction in 2003 of House Resolution 183 in the Michigan Legislature in Lansing: "A resolution establishing Yooper as Michigan's official state dialect."
The whereas clauses gave the Yooper dialect antiquity ("around 1840"), an identity ("independent, hearty individualism and the active sportsmen's tradition") and status as reflecting "our multi-cultural heritage."
Most remarkable of all, Yooper (barely a decade old as an acknowledged community of speech) is in peril. The resolution declared it to be "an endangered dialect that is on the verge of vanishing forever" from our Great Lake State. It didn't say anything about just what the Yooper dialect is.
The resolution pleased the civics class from Bessemer that had come up with the idea of making Yooper "official." Yet what is historic needs preservation and so a co-drafter of the resolution, Elizabeth Norton, a student at East Junior High School in Traverse City, was worried. "If we lose that [Yooper] dialect," she said, "we'll lose part of what makes us unique as a state." HR 183 was promptly referred to committee and has never been heard from since.
To find out more about Yooper, visit the Web site: http://www.dayoopers.com/
Richard W. Bailey is the Fred Newton Scott Collegiate Professor of English. His most recent book is Rogue Scholar: The Sinister Life and Celebrated Death of Edward H. Rulloff, University of Michigan Press, 2003—a biography of an American thief, impostor, murderer and would-be philologist who lived from 1821 to 1871. It was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2003.