Column – In Love with Language

Midwestern Linguistic Humor Comes into its Own at Last

By Dianne Loyet

If, like myself, you’re an American Midwesterner born and bred, you may often have been told that you have no regional dialect. To non-linguists, that may appear to be true simply because there is so much overlap between midwestern dialects and the “standard” dialects of academia and the media.

Of course, we linguists know that there are Midwestern American dialects, but our dialects have never had the cachet of, say, the Boston or Brooklyn or Texas dialects. Sure, some Chicago pronunciations had their fifteen minutes of fame on Saturday Night Live sketches about “da Bears” and “da Bulls,” but that was just scratching the surface.

With the humor of Charlie Behrens, however, Midwestern English is finally getting some attention.

Behrens was born and raised in Wisconsin. In his early career as a TV journalist, he was frequently told that a word or expression that he had used outside of the Midwest was unfamiliar to his audience. Eventually, Behrens transitioned to comedy and found that material based on his Wisconsin dialect and upbringing resonated with audiences.

The comedian’s flagship Youtube show is the Manitowoc Minute. In these short clips, Behrens usually provides Wisconsin-centric commentary on the day’s headlines and peppers his speech with signature phrases such as “Keep ‘er movin’”.

It is in longer clips on his Youtube channel that Behrens has shown himself to be a careful observer of Wisconsin speech and manners.

My absolute favorite is “The School of Ope,” a brief lesson on meaning and use of the word “ope.” As a linguist, I can tell you it’s quite thrilling to get a lesson about a word that I use every day without even realizing that I use it!

If, like myself, you’ve never noticed this word, Behrens defines ‘ope’ as, “a polite apologetic exclamation expressing a sincere remorse for using oxygen on planet earth, also used to say ‘wow,’ ‘excuse me,’ ‘you dropped this,’ ‘I need a beer,’ plus a hundred thousand other situations.” Common situations in which Midwesterners ‘ope’: passing through a crowd to get to the rest room, “Ope, lemme squeeze right past ya;” one slice of pizza left, “Ope, by all means you take it.”

Almost as enlightening is “Midwest Voice Translator and Bottle Opener.” Here are some examples of ‘translations’:

“I says put er down by the davenport” is “Place the item by the couch.”

“Jeet?” is “Did you eat?”

“Guy says ta me, ‘Ya wanna Bud Light?’ ‘I says Ah I might as well swing from da bubbler, issa horse apiece,” means “A man asked me if I wanted a Bud Light. I said I might as well drink from the water fountain. It’s the same thing.”

In closing, I’d just like to add, “Tell yer Mom I says hi,” which means “Bye now.”