Fargo is the now classic breakthrough film from 1996 by Joel and Ethan Coen, a crime drama, apparently based on true events in the US state of Minnesota, in 1987, in which a hapless and slightly crooked car dealer gets involved with some ruthless petty criminals, everything spirals out of control with unforeseen and increasingly dire circumstances and bloody, gruesome consequences.

It contrasted the eccentric, folksy attitude of mid-north westerners through an oddball collection of quirky small town characters, with the harsh, ruthless and empty greed of perceived outsiders. Fargo the TV series, starring The Hobbit’s Martin Freeman, continues and elaborates on the themes and plots and, although updated to 2006, has similar characters to the original. Both also share the frozen, silent, snowbound landscapes, a symbolic and philosophical backdrop, and also the distinct Minnesota accent.

More correctly described as Upper Midwest American English (or North-Central American English) – it is actually considered a dialect by linguists, not merely an accent. It is spoken by around 12 million people in the northern parts of the central states bordering Canada, including Montana, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota and parts of Iowa, and Michigan.

It shares much with the Canadian accent, and most linguists attribute its development through the settlement of the region by Scandinavian, German, Finnish and Dutch settlers, combined with Scots-Irish and and English who also settled in the northern mid-west states. Through a process called language transfer, the language of later immigrants influenced that of earlier settlers. For an even more extreme variation, there is also what’s known as the Yooper Dialect, heard in the Upper (or ‘Yooper’) Peninsula of Michigan, Northwest Wisconsin and Minnesota, and which combined linguistic elements from Finnish, German and Scandinavian with English, the local Native American and even French Canadian speech.

There is a tendency to laugh at the Minnesota accent, to consider it dumb, unsophisticated. That would be a mistake. It is informed from a diversity of rich and complex cultures. It seems particularly warm and friendly in the face of the unforgiving northern clime, and yet it also reflects an unprepossessing directness, a pragmatism again born in response to the deadly elements. Which makes it almost perfect for a tale of unfortunate circumstances and ruthless crime, nature at her harshest, characters pushed to extremes, the emptiness of greed and the simplicity of justice.


The somewhat scary Paul Bunyan statue outside Brainerd, Minnesota.

2 Responses

  1. Underdogge

    I like the thrillers (“Live Bait” and “Snow Blind” are two of them) by mother and daughter team PJ Tracey which are set in Minnesota. The only thing I found hard to swallow was the fact that one of the detectives is hopelessly in love with one of the main female characters Grace, even though she is something of an ice queen (though she has had a scare in her past). I worked for a couple of years with a young woman from Michigan (she was from the hinterland of Detroit though); obviously that must have been a part of Michigan which doesn’t speak “Yooper” because I could understand her alright. She said when she went home her friends and family laughed at her saying things like “rubbish” instead of “garbage” – acquired from her English husband I guess. I find accents interesting though I have put my foot in it by asking Tynesiders what part of Scotland they come from in the past. Thinking about what CS said on the “Sleepy Hollow” thread that English people at the time America was first settled likely had more of a twang than present day ones do, perhaps I shouldn’t have laughed as hard as I did at “Camelot” (the TV show not the musical) where some of the knights of the Round Table had North American accents and Morgan Le Fay had a fair amount of French accent in her voice…….but then again when laughter comes it is spontaneous.

  2. C S Hughes

    I think any historical or fantasy role, as with Shakespeare, it is all about the resonance. So Al Pacino can carry a magnificent stage version of Richard III, despite having a very definite Italian American New York drawl. While some actors with the same accent, it would be a distraction to say the least.
    As to Camelot, an Anglo Saxon legend that became part of the French and French Norman culture, one almost expects French accents.


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