Britta Bloomquist says words that some friends find funny: Spendy. Rammy. She pronounces “bag” and “beg” with nearly the same hard “A.” “Lag” and “leg” sound alike, too. Sometimes, she even catches herself saying “you betcha.”
For most of her life, Bloomquist has lived in Virginia, Minn. So the 27-year old is fluent in Iron Range English.
This summer, her speech was studied.
Sara Schmelzer Loss, a visiting assistant professor of linguistics at Oklahoma State University, interviewed 30 Iron Rangers and is now analyzing their distinctive dialect. The study goes beyond pronunciation: Loss is also looking at syntax, including Rangers’ propensity to end a sentence with “just” and drop relative pronouns such as “who.”
One of her questions: “Could you, as an Iron Ranger, say: ‘It was John told us about it.’ ”
Yes, many said.
Loss is herself from the Iron Range. She grew up in Keewatin and went to high school in Hibbing. It wasn’t until college that she realized she spoke and wrote differently from most people. Working on her master’s degree at the University of Minnesota, she read a book’s example of an unacceptable sentence. But to her ear, that sentence sounded “beautiful.”
“Is this just me?” she remembers thinking. “I felt really alone.”
Turns out Iron Range English stems from “an imperfect learning of English” in the late 19th century, when an influx of immigrants — from countries such as Slovenia and Finland — came to northeastern Minnesota to work in the iron ore mines. In a bigger city, different immigrants segregated themselves, Loss said.
But on the Range, there was “a big mixing” thanks to mining housing, she said, creating that distinctive dialect.
For her dissertation, Loss took a deep look at how people on the Iron Range use reflexive pronouns such as “himself.” Her skills honed, she returned home this summer with a broader goal, recording long interviews with 15 men and 15 women of various ages to see how the language has changed.
For example, an older person might be more likely to call someone new to the area a “pack sacker,” she said, a term that connotes taking away jobs because of its ties to a time when people were on strike at the mines.
Loss is also weighing whether people with stronger connections to the area are more likely to use “Rayncher” talk.
Linguists don’t make judgments about “good” or “bad” language. Doing her work on reflexive pronouns, Loss hypothesized that Iron Rangers were using reflexive pronouns more like people speaking Mandarin Chinese or Icelandic. It’s not a matter of bad grammar.
Loss hopes her research brings a better understanding of the people of northeastern Minnesota. “There’s a lot of pride of being from the Iron Range, I think.”
When her Iron Range English comes out, Bloomquist gets some gentle ribbing from her boyfriend, who grew up in Missouri and moved around before landing in Minnesota. He laughs about how Boomquist, a journalism major, might say something like, “Can you borrow me your books?” She knows that she ought to use “lend,” instead. “It’s just 20 years of hearing others and myself say it the same way.”
But Bloomquist is “proud of where I’m from and how I speak.”
When spending time beyond the Range, she gets a kick out of people’s reactions, she said. “People are like, ‘Are you from Canada?’
“No, but close.”