|Children of Finnish immigrants playing the American game of baseball in Askel, Michigan. (circa. 1915). Courtesy of the Finnish American Heritage Center, Finlandia University.|
This post is the third in a series focused on the history of English in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (UP), specifically the northwest region including Marquette, Negaunee, Ishpeming, and the Copper Country. These posts are a work in progress and I welcome your insights to help develop the ideas or to make necessary corrections. Thank you.
Although commonly mistaken for Canadian English because of some of the shared sounds and the use of eh, the Upper Peninsula English has been influenced the the languages of the Anishinabek and immigrants who settled in the region during the copper and iron boons of the mid-1800s and early 1900s. These languages included Canadian French, German, Cornish English, Italian, Irish English, Finnish, and Croatian, among others.
Immigrants were often segregated socially and naturally spoke their family's heritage language at home. These daily uses of language helped to maintain heritage languages, at least for many of the adults. Yet adults working outside the home and school-aged children needed to learn English as a common language and because there was little contact with native English speakers, English was learned from other immigrants whose own languages textured the English spoken. The sounds, words, and phrases of today's dialect are a result of these various languages coming into contact as people migrated to the region, mixing and mingling with each other, and the sounds, words, and phrases of their languages melding with those of the local variety of English to create a regional dialect.
Often the perception of UP English is that it sounds "Finnish." It is true that Finnish has had a lasting effect on English in some areas of the UP, especially in the central and western regions and this effect is a result of the comparably significant number of Finnish immigrants during the late 1800s and early 1900s. These immigration patterns, where people settled, what languages they used in their daily lives, literacy, along with the UP's isolation, have combined to shape what UP English is today. A significant influence was the continued contact between English and Finnish; however, other influences such Canadian English, also significantly affect today's varieties of UP English.
The predominance of Finnish is in part due to the large Finnish immigration to the central and western regions, including Marquette, Baraga, Houghton, Keweenaw, and Ontonagon counties during the late 1800s and continuing into the early 1900s. Settlement patterns related to immigration also reinforced continued contact between Finnish and English: Finns often settled in rural areas, sometimes in co-ops or community farms such as the Heinola Community in Houghton County. These rural settlements were more isolated and had more homogeneous populations than the towns had. In contrast, most other immigrant groups to the Copper Country and Marquette area tended to live in towns where they had more opportunity to interact with a wider variety of speakers of other languages and thus used English more often as a common language, or lingua franca. Typically, families who used English as a lingua franca often lost their native language after the first or second generation, and thus, the characteristics of these other languages leveled, or got ironed out, and the languages themselves had less effect on English in the UP than Finnish, which was typically maintained for several generations. Because of the daily use of Finnish over generations, there was constant contact between Finnish and English. This contact led to borrowed words and their Finnish pronunciations, such as sauna (locally pronounced sowna). As locals' speech began to be connected with being "Finn," an ethnic and regional dialect emerged.
In addition to immigration and settlement patterns, another significant factor that affected continued contact between English and Finnish was that Finnish, unlike the languages of other immigrants, is not related to English: Finnish is from the Finno-Ugric language family, while English is part of the Indo-European language family. This means that there are very few similarities between the structure and vocabularies of Finnish and English, unlike similarities among English and the Indo-European languages of other immigrants, such as French, German, Polish, and Italian. The grammar and vocabulary of English was therefore especially foreign to Finns and compounded their difficulty in learning English.
Literacy is a third factor that played an important role in maintaining the Finnish language in the area. Finnish immigrants who had married and voted in Finland before emigrating were required to know how to read and write. While the majority of Finns were literate, many other immigrants to the region typically were not. Being literate, Finnish immigrants tended to keep in written contact with other Finnish speakers—here and in Finland, and continue to speak, read, and to write Finnish. This ability to read and write helped to maintain the use of Finnish on a daily basis and over time, from writing letters, to reading books and newspapers, to talking with neighbors and relatives, to attending Finnish-language church services, as well as to playing with siblings. Many older residents of Finnish descent explain that they spoke Finnish before they spoke English, some continuing to speak Finnish as well as read and write it throughout their lives, others leaving it behind after learning English from younger siblings and attending school. The lasting effects of literacy, along with the lack of relationship between English and Finnish, helped to maintain Finnish through three and four generations, sometimes longer. While this constant contact with the Finnish language helped to shape English in the UP today, other languages also influenced UP Englishes, which I will explore in future posts.