The “Fargo” Accent: A Joke that Never Dies

Minnesota in winterIt’s been fifteen years since Fargo was released in American theaters.  Set in rural Minnesota, the film turned an obscure American regional dialect into a national punchline, albeit a loving one.  Mention “Minnesota dialect” to an American, and they’ll give you an imitation replete with oh yahs and you betchas and dontchaknows.

Minnesotans can be touchy about this subject, since many of them (particularly around Minneapolis) speak General American English.  This classic scene from Fargo will give you a good idea of the dialect used in the film that gets some Minnesotans hot under the collar.

Watching this clip, I am struck by three things:

1.) The dialect here is more exaggerated than the accent. More objectionable might be the (over)use of dialect words such as yah (a very Germanic “yes” that harks back to the Upper Midwest’s roots in Germany and Scandinavia), and you betcha.

2.) It’s the cultural stereotypes in the film that are arguably more problematic.  Fargo portrays Minnesotans as a group of people with an unwavering friendly reserve that remains unshaken even in the face of violence.  As with many fictional works satirizing rural people, the film straddles the line between using loving humor and painting its characters as backwater oddballs.  The accent has become emblematic of these stereotypes.

3.) To be fair, I also see some dialect obliviousness going on here.  Like many Americans, Minnesotans occasionally seem unaware of their own accents.  A case in point is this video, created by a young Minnesotan trying to dispell myths about the accent of his home state:

Let’s face it:  there’s some unintentional humor here.  For all of this guy’s protestations about his accent being misrepresented, his speech is very clearly regional.  Just because you don’t say “youbetcha” doesn’t mean you don’t have a Minnesota accent!

I was a huge fan of Fargo, although I can see how the film’s signature dialect is a bit of a fiction.  Any Minnesotans out there with thoughts?

Share

About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
This entry was posted in American English and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to The “Fargo” Accent: A Joke that Never Dies

  1. TT says:

    “Just because you don’t say “youbetcha” doesn’t mean you don’t have a Minnesota accent!”

    And saying “youbetcha” wouldn’t even be an accent feature, as you mentioned. In my experience, most people don’t understand the difference between accent and dialect. They’ll say things like, “I don’t say, ‘oh yah’, so I don’t have a Minnesota accent.”

    “Minnesotans can be touchy about this subject, since many of them (particularly around Minneapolis) speak General American English.”

    Really? Maybe that’s what they tell you, but I’ve heard more than one person from that area with a noticeable accent (to me). That area participates in the so called “NCVS” to some extent according to that article on Wikipedia. Jessie Ventura, who is from that area, sounds very Minnesotan to me. Ditto with this random garage repair guy I found on YouTube. Of course, I’m assuming he grew up in that area. I bet he probably did though. I’ve also heard people from even further south than the Twin Cities with very noticeable accents.

    • trawicks says:

      There are no doubt strong Minnesota accents in Minneapolis. But I’ve also noticed a much milder variant of the accent, there typified by mayor RT Rybak. Rybak’s accent isn’t completely free of marked accent features (he definitely has some of the NCVS going on). But to my ears, it’s much more within the spectrum of GenAm than the stereotypical Minnesota accent.

      I’m with you saying that you can find this accent further south, however. I once had a co-worker from northern Iowa, in fact, whose speech was very similar.

  2. m.m. says:

    With the first point you bring up, and as you posted before in january, the general use of dialect and accent is that they are interchangeable, and in their case, using “yah” or “you betcha” or “like totally” or “hella” will be called an accent just as they call use of non-rhotic or southern drawl an accent. There are nice examples in the comments section of that video.

  3. Lane says:

    You do know the Coen brothers were born and raised in Minnesota, right? That doesn’t mean that they got the accent right through and through, but it bears mentioning in a post that hangs on *Fargo*.

  4. Charles Sullivan says:

    How does Garrison Keillor measure up on Prairie Home Companion, do you think?

  5. trawicks says:

    @m.m.

    “Accent” is simply the word people are acquainted with in America. Although “dialect” was for a while a kind of short hand for AAVE here. Which is strangely accurate: AAVE is one of the only dialects in America that even approaches the level of distinctiveness you find in “traditional dialects” in the UK. And even then, it’s still a good ways off!

    @Lane,

    I am aware they’re from Minnesota. Although they grew up around Minneapolis, which is quite a different milieu from the setting for much of “Fargo.”

    @Charles,

    I would classify Keillor’s accent as GenAm. Although he has a kind of old-fashioned radio voice that belongs in its a classification all its own!

  6. dw says:

    In the “non-irritating” video you posted I note:
    * a monophthongal [e] in FACE words
    * A fully back vowel in GOAT words
    * Lack of fronting in GOOSE words
    * A mid rather than open starting point in MOUTH (a bit like “Canadian raising” but in all environments, not just before voiceless consonants).
    * A front LOT vowel (a la NCVS, although I don’t hear any other evidence of the NCVS)

    All of these except the last are actually conservative. I rather like his accent.

    • TT says:

      I would add to that list:
      * PRICE is raised before voiceless consonants. This is particularly noticeable in alrighty, right and might. This may also be a conservative feature, in which case “raised” would be inappropriate.
      * His PRICE also tends to be more front than mine; it’s also more front than his own MOUTH, which I believe is a northern feature, according to the Atlas of North American English.

      The last one on your list is actually found in some Irish accents, interestingly. I don’t where it came from there though. Possibly from certain accents of the Irish language.

    • trawicks says:

      Minnesota vowel conservatism sometimes reminds me of Western Irish or Caribbean accents, although the accent is obviously quite different in other respects (e.g. intonation). The one other NCVS feature I noticed was a very backed STRUT vowel, though the entirely shift doesn’t sound as advanced as it is in Wisconsin or Michigan.

      Quite agree with you about his accent–it has a very pleasant musicality to it. Definitely nothing to be ashamed of!

      • TT says:

        Which reminds me, a front LOT can be found in the Caribbean too. Tanks! That may be due to Irish settlement. I feel like I’ve had a discussion similar to this recently.

      • blazelled says:

        That’s a very interesting comment you made about the similarities to Western Ireland; I’m a native Minneapolitan who has been told multiple times when traveling overseas that I sounded somewhat Irish. I have never been to Ireland, I don’t even have a drop of Irish blood in me. I really think it’s the musicality, while listening to the television or other “normal” American accents I can’t help but notice how monotone and boring it all sounds.

        A sure-fire way to really hear a Minnesotan is to demand to hear the sentence “look at the bag there on the roof of the boat”. Never fails.

        • Holly says:

          I’m an hour south of Minneapolis (Owatonna). Great line!….

          “Look at dat bag dare, on da roof of dat boooowt!” Great!!!

  7. boynamedsue says:

    I’m glad you posted this, I agree the kid’s accent is distinctive and very nice.

    I listened to comedian Mitch Hedberg (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6xaj2fC1jI&feature=related) the other day, I couldn’t place his accent at all, so I checked it on wiki and found he was Minnesotan. I was actually wondering if he was from Louisiana at one point.

  8. Michael says:

    I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone from Minnesota, but I have known a couple of Wisconsinites, and their accents were nearly identical to the Fargo stereotype.

    Is the actress Edie McClurg from that area? I’ve thought I’ve noticed that accent with her at times, but it could’ve just been adopted for the roles she was playing.

  9. Pingback: Fargo accent and dialect notes « Sentence first

  10. Pingback: Midwestern English is Not "Dictionary Standard" | Dialect Blog

  11. Pingback: Road trip! | Slow Glass

  12. Tara Baklund says:

    Yes, we are unaware of our accent. The further you travel into the rural area and even into Wisconsin you WILL hear a very nasally “well” or “dontchaknow” and, yes, “youbetcha” . . . maybe even an occasional genuine “Uffda!” The movie, I agree, is exaggerated.

    We have been experiencing some “gosh darn coldt whetter here” and I wrote this amusing post (with MN accented characters) that has gotten more attention than I hoped.

    I hope you all can enjoy it too!

    :)

    Tara – born and raised in MN – yah, youbetcha!

    http://tarabaklund.blogspot.com/2014/01/a-little-minnesota-accent-humor-on-this.html

  13. Brad says:

    Apparently there’s going to be a Fargo TV show now. That might give you more to write about in the future :)

  14. Guy says:

    I’m from Minnesota, and the speech in “Fargo” doesn’t bother me at all. I actually live about an hour and a half away from Brainerd, and I catch this accent all the time. I never understood why so many Minnesotans were offended by it. We make fun of ourselves all the time, and I don’t think this movie did anything mean-spirited.

  15. I was born in Saint John New Brunswick, Canada in 1951. Mom was Canadian. But my father was an American from Philadelphia. He visited LA during his time in the US Army in 1942 and wanted to live there after the war. However, upon marrying my mom they moved to Canada. When I was 10 years old we did move to Los Angeles. All during my childhood in Saint John, I never considered that there was a Canadian accent, so often poked fun at by comedians (the McKenzie Brothers) and pundits. We all had to get the Winston Canadian Dictionary upon entering elementary school, and remarkably, many years later I discovered that the word “eh” IS there and defined as a Canadian expression. The only 2 words I kept Canadian (and still do), living in LA, was “aunt”, which I pronounced “ont” – I deplored referring to my mothers sister as an insect – and the word “process”, which I pronounced “PRO (as in ‘proactive’), not the American ‘process’, as in ‘progress’. Several years ago I started doing call center work, calling across the U.S. So I got to hear and experience the delightful Southern Dixie drawl of Georgia and Mississippi, the ‘yawl come back now’ of Texas with its hillbilly variant in Memphis and Little Rock, the rushed almost arrogant “we’re in a hurry” Yiddish and Italian influenced New York accent, the Irish Boston accent, and yes, the Svedish lull in St Paul. With this array of accents and dialectics in America, what is “an American” accent? I suppose it’s what you hear on the media, radio, TV and film. Certainly different than the English spoken in the U.K. I also considered that there is no California accent (although comedians like Cheech and Chong, more Cheech than Chong poked fun of the Latino English spoken in East LA). California accent is like their avocados: bland tasting. But NEVER EVER say ‘Frisco” when in the Bay area, as that is a dead give away you’re from out of town. Also speaking with visiting “pommys” from Australia, “kiwis” from New Zealand and Afrikaners from Capetown and Jo-berg, I came to realize the evident variance in their spoken English from that generally pronounced in England. However when we started Canada, from Halifax, to Toronto, to Edmonton to Vancouver is when it hit me that the Canadian accent is real. I thought it was a joke in the media but no, THEY REALLY TALK THAT WAY! I recall talking to a client in Edmonton, where every 2nd or 3rd sentence ended with an “eh”. And every time he said the word “house”, it was “hoose”. The only difference was calling Montreal and Quebec City, which is like calling Paris where they try to speak English. They answer the phone with a “Oui?” or, instead of “hello:, it’s “al-lo”, and spoken not as a question but a statement. Aren’t people and their accents fun?

  16. Australians pronounce “beer” as “be-yah”, as in “Foester Be-yah”

    • Int242 says:

      No they don’t. They just don’t pronounce the r fully. They stop it in the same way that people from Boston do.

  17. Fartknocker says:

    I can’t believe I found the source of this accent I heard in the movie Fargo. I couldn’t even finish the movie because the accent and the utter stupidity of two of the main actors including the one dudes wife made me so violent I wanted to break something. If I lived in Minnesota I would be miserable and probably either kill myself or everyone with that accent that wouldn’t shut their damned mouth.

    • Lily says:

      Wait, did you read the post? Also, please never visit. We’re a reserved, kind, open-minded people here who welcome anyone who wants to come…but reactionary, prejudiced assholes with bad taste in film and poor reading comprehension aren’t welcome.

  18. Ben Dover says:

    I was born and raised in Minnesota, although now I live abroad. I think this gives me a unique perspective with regard to the Minnesota accent. I lived there for the first 23 years of my life and I definitely acquired some you betchas and dont’cha knows, but I’ve been away long enough (5 years) to give it some distance and appreciation.

    With that said, the accent in the show is way over the top, and I find it hilarious. No one, and I mean no one, in Minnesota talks like that. In the most populated area, the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the speech is very neutral. The more rural you get, the more heavily accented ohhh’s and ahhh’s you get. But nothing even remotely close to the Cohen brother’s film, or this TV series. I definitely don’t see any attempt at an accurate portrayal of Minnesotan’s, rather an exaggeration of stereotypes that are used as means to provide some humor for the show. What is weird to me is how some people in other parts of the country actually believe that this is how Minnesotan’s talk, think, and act. Humor just goes right over the heads of some people, dont’cha know.

  19. Pingback: "Fargo" Redux: Dialect Work in TV's Renaissance | Dialect Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>