By Danielle A. Teigen
Language is a funny thing. It changes – sometimes slowly and other times rapidly – shifting with each new generation that contributes to it. And in any given culture, it’s powerful as well.
You can easily spot other cultural markers like clothing, art and music, but language is different. You have to engage someone to hear how they speak, and the words they use tell you a lot about them and their surroundings.
That’s why being able to “speak” Fargo is important. Say certain words and people will assume you’ve been here long enough to know what we sound like. But if you trip up and don’t use a particular word or phrase, don’t worry. Use the occasion to spark a conversation about heritage and home, because that’s what our language is a product of.
As is typical of the Midwest, Fargoans typically call casseroles “hot dishes” and make pans of “bars” for events requiring baked goods. We like to drink “pop,” as opposed to “soda,” and someone might invite you to his house for “supper,” not “dinner.”
But what truly sets Fargo apart is the word “Bison.” And not in reference to the American bison, which recently secured the honor of national mammal of the United States. No, in Fargo we talk about the “Bizon” (with a buzzing bee sound, rather than a hissing sound) from North Dakota State University. If that description sounds a little weird, that’s okay. Just take a walk down any street and ask a stranger what NDSU’s mascot is. You’ll hear the difference immediately.
NDSU English instructor Kellam Barta studies sociolinguistics and has spent the past two years researching that particular regional linguistic characteristic. His research led him across North Dakota and into Canada, Minnesota and South Dakota to determine how far the dominance of “Bizon” extended throughout the region.
It covers a large swath. That’s because Fargo’s relative isolation from other major cities means that linguistic influence radiates out of the city uninhibited.
“That nuanced variation in one word is a cultural marker that sets outsiders apart from Fargoans,” Barta explained. “But there are no wrong ways of using language – just different systems. We need to stop ‘othering’ people because of how they talk.”
Barta’s not entirely sure where or when that particular nuance started because “origin stories of language is the hardest thing for linguists.”
Other Fargo language markers are easier to nail down. “Uff da” and its variations are the relics of Norwegian settlers. The fact that you still hear people uttering that phrase is a prime example of the founder effect, Barta said, which states that an original settling society continues to influence culture. In Fargo-Moorhead, people are fiercely proud of their heritage (Norwegian or otherwise), and embracing a relic of the language is a way of “doing” culture, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Undoubtedly you’ll notice different vowel sounds from Fargoans. Barta said the distinct “o” and “a” sound (called a monophthong in English terms) is a widely recognized linguistic device in the area. Locals say “Minnesooota” but in North Carolina, it’s “Minnesota.”
You might hear “Oh, fer cute” or “Oh, fer funny” exclaimed by an excited Fargoan. So excited, in fact, that the person might speak the phrase all as one word. That’s something Lisa Gulland-Nelson from the Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corporation hears frequently from people who aren’t from the area. “When we say it so fast, they hear it as one word, and they have no idea what we’re saying,” Gulland-Nelson explained.
Another way of speaking Fargo is referring to “the lake.” From May to September, everyone seemingly packs up their belongings to head to one giant body of water to enjoy some fun in the sun. Where is this singular enormous lake, you might ask? It doesn’t exist. But, Minnesota is home to more than 10,000 individual lakes, so really, “the lake” is everywhere. Fargoans love leaving for summer weekends to spend time at a particular one, usually one with familial ties. But to someone who hasn’t grown up in the area, the concept of “the lake” seems strange, Gulland-Nelson said.
These linguistic pecularities or language quirks are rarely used in Fargo to marginalize someone – that’s not the North Dakota/Minnesota way, after all. Fargoans are too nice to actually use language to subordinate. The truth is, locals may not always realize the power of our words or the history behind why they use them.
“Differences in language should be celebrated, because difference does not equal deficit,” Barta said. “There’s no way to get everyone on the same page regarding language use. That would be impossible, and would we even want that? Homogeny is not interesting.”
The preceding story is published in Impact: The magazine for Fargo-Moorhead business and industry 2016