‘You must be from Minnesota’

Before I began working at NEHGS in November 2015, I had a job where I interacted with between thirty and fifty different people every day. One of those people was a linguist, who, upon hearing me speak, said, “You aren’t from here.” She was right. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I grew up in northern New Hampshire and moved to Massachusetts in 2011.

I said to her, “No, I’m not from Massachusetts. I’m a transplant.”

Her answer, oddly enough, was, “You must be from Minnesota.”

I remember being surprised by her determination, which led to a discussion about why she thought that I was from Minnesota. Her answer was that I had a distinct lilt in my voice that she had studied and found to be associated with those of Scandinavian origin. I’ve learned, after researching several cases involving Minnesota, that it does have a high number of residents who claim Scandinavian heritage. However, the ancestors I’ve identified to date arrived in the Northeast and stayed here. In fact, I’m one of a few black sheep who dared move more than fifty miles from my extended family.

[She] was adamant that one of my parents was Scandinavian…

After I explained to her that I was from northern New Hampshire, she was adamant that one of my parents was Scandinavian, or descended from someone who was. I’ve researched quite a bit of my own ancestry, and I have yet to uncover one ancestor of Scandinavian origin. I told her that as far as I knew, I was French, Italian, and English.

It’s been years since I had this discussion, but I remember it distinctly. It was the first thing I thought of when I received my DNA results from 23andMe in January. Most of the results were what I expected. I have French, Italian, and British ancestry. However, there were a couple of unexpected results as well. According to my DNA (about which, I admit, I am nowhere near as well-versed as others who work at NEHGS), I also have Iberian and Scandinavian ancestry.

I still have not managed to trace any ancestors who were Iberian or Scandinavian; however, it is possible that they are in generations further back than those I’ve managed to uncover to date.

I have not seen the woman who told me I must be Scandinavian in years, and part of me wishes I were still in contact with her, so that I could tell her she was right about my ancestry. The more I think about her determination, the more I wonder if linguistics are a part of genealogy that hasn’t been explored yet. I took a linguistics course in college, and there are certain vocal qualities and/or phrases that are associated with different regions and cultures. There’s also the argument that people who move to different areas try to assimilate by adopting the same accent and language used by the residents in that area. I will be curious to see if, somewhere down the road, linguistics becomes a larger part of historical and genealogical research.

About Julie Wilmot

Julie, a native of Errol, New Hampshire, holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology with a concentration in Native American Studies from the University of Maine, Orono, and a Master of Arts degree in History and Culture from Union Institute and University. She has worked at the Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History in Orono, Maine, and was a presenter at the New England Historical Association Spring 2014 Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts. Her research interests include French-Canadian migration to Northern New England, and international cases.

24 thoughts on “‘You must be from Minnesota’

  1. If your French ancestors are Norman, it might be because the Normans (=North Men) originally came from Scandinavia. I guess that’s a long way to go back. Having grown up in Massachusetts, but having also lived for a long time in Minnesota, I have never noticed any similarity at all between New England and Minnesota accents. But then again, I never took a linguistics course, although in graduate school I did have to learn Old Icelandic.

  2. I am from Minnesota, although my husband and I moved to Virginia in 2011. I lived in Minnesota for 67 years. People here often ask me if I’m from Minnesota because of my accent….Many years ago, in Minnesota, I attended a genealogy conference and one of the speakers was a linguistic expert from Germany. I remember he said that in listening to a German citizen speak, he could place their residence to within several miles. ( I think he actually gave a distance, but I can’t remember). He also talked about the origin of German surnames. My ancestor’s surname is Hellendrung. It is a very uncommon surname, so I had wondered if it had been changed when they immigrated. He laughed and told me it had not changed….this is the correct spelling. It came from a nickname and it means ” one who goes for the drinks”

  3. The ethnicity estimates are always a little wonky, and subject to change over time as more people are tested, increasing their sample comparison populations. When I first got my results on my smart phone, I was sure that the pie chart which showed 38% Ireland, 30% Europe West, 13% Scandinavia, and 13% Italy/Greece had to be a generic icon and that when I tapped on it, my “real” estimate would show up…since I’ve traced my family back many, many generations on all sides and it’s mostly English, with about 25% Celtic, 20% German (two of my great-great-grandparents came from there, plus others further back), with a bit of Iberian Peninsula, Native American and Sub-Saharan African in much smaller amounts. But it turned out that those WERE my official results, which completely floored me: only 2% Great Britain, and where did that Scandinavian and Mediterranean stuff come from? If I had not also been matched with my mother’s first cousin and her daughter, and my father’s first cousin and her daughter, I would have sworn that the sample had been mixed up, and I began to wonder whether my great-grandmother in San Francisco had had taken a Latin lover while her husband was traveling around the country on special projects for the Southern Pacific!

    But then I had my brother tested (for his valuable Y chromosome) through National Geographic. Their ethnicity estimates are much broader but came back with similar overall results to mine: a little over 1/3 British Isles (Celtic and British combined), about 1/3 Northern European, and a little less than 1/3 Southern European. Furthermore, that valuable Y chromosome was Scandinavian. Also, their comparison populations showed an overall closest match to modern inhabitants of Great Britain. Never forget both that Normans were really Scandinavians not French, and that there were centuries of direct Viking raids along the eastern coast of Great Britain. And the Romans left their DNA all over Europe!

    When I had my mom tested about a year later (and yes, we were matched as parent and child), her ethnicity estimate was 35% Great Britain, 28% Ireland, 21% Europe West, 6% Scandinavia, and 5% Italy/Greece. Doing the math, the child of someone with 35% British DNA should have been approximately 17% British, not 2%…and she’s the one from whom I get all the Celtic surnames, so curious that I got a significantly higher Irish estimate than she did. As has been stated by so many others elsewhere, we all need to take this ethnicity estimate thing as interesting but not conclusive.

    1. It has become commonplace these days for people of English or British ancestry to be shocked by their DNA results. I think we all forget that there really isn’t an English ethnicity. The people of England are as mixed as we in the US. Between the Romans, Vikings, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Normans and huge numbers of Irish, Belgians, not to forget Welsh and Scots, the idea of an English ethnicity went out the window a long time ago.

  4. I have found that my SE Missouri roots were buried deep in western North Carolina by way of Tennessee. The sayings/phrases and other linguistic patterns and quirks from the Appalachian areas were definitely recognizable to me when I listened to old recordings made in NC. I agree with you that the study of Linguistics may be a treasure house for genealogists.

  5. DNA is useful genealogically because DNA transmission is purely a function of molecular biology. DNA however appears to be quite agnostic concerning language and culture. Though not based on the DNA, culture (“the way we do things around here”) and language, dialect and accent (“the way we say things to each other around here”) is remarkably persistent across many generations. I agree with you that defining and categorizing cultural and linguistic characteristics within families and small communities is a neglected topic in genealogy.

    I recall a story of a British musicologist who spent many years searching Britain for a particular accent associated with a style of folk song from the Elizabethan era; toward the end of his academic career he had been unable to locate anyone in Britain who still possessed the particular accent he was searching for. While visiting a colleague in the U.S. one summer in the late 1970s he ended up on vacation in the hill country west of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley; the clerk in a rural country store spoke English with the exact accent for which the musicologist had spent his career searching, it having been preserved in rural Appalachian America rather than Britain. The contemporary musical group “Baltimore Consort” was, at least according to the story I recall hearing, a direct result of that chance encounter in the rural general store in the Appalachian hills.

    Quebec was a common mid-19th century destination for Scandinavian (especially Norwegian) immigrants and almost all of them headed for the U.S. and the upper Midwest, though some most likely found their way into northern New Hampshire and Vermont. A Norwegian farmworker or housekeeper who lodged with a family in Northern New Hampshire could well have imparted a hint of the “sing song” Norwegian lilt to the language of the younger children in the family; it is a difficult accent to resist imitating and, for a young child, acquiring for life. The hint in your speech of a “Minnesota” accent need not be related to a Scandinavian ancestor, but could rather be an acquired cultural characteristic that has been transmitted linguistically within the family since the late 19th century.

  6. We were in North Dakota staying at a hotel, which had hosted a Scandinavian reunion of sorts…. they had presentations of music by accordionists…..We talked to the key figure, and we got on ethnicity…He volunteered that my husband looked Scandinavian……and he was right as he has 57%. I then asked him about me, and he couldn’t tell……..well, I have very little Scandinavian, and more Britain, West European, etc……so linguistics played a big part in this guy’s sizing us up….

  7. Interesting post. My mother was born and raised in southern Illinois. When my father was transferred to New Orleans when we kids were in elementary school, a neighbor told mom she “must be a lil Mississippi girl”!! Mom was speechless. Regional accents are fascinating for sure.

  8. Thank you for an interesting article and perspective. Now, I am curious to learn more about linguistics and DNA. I have never studied linguistics, so I imagine there will be a learning curve. In genealogy there are always new subjects and avenues to explore.

  9. I grew up in a little town in Southwestern New Hampshire. I moved over 3,000 miles west to southern CA in 1977 leaving my deep roots of New England behind. At a CA Mayflower conference fifteen or so years ago, a woman sitting near me asked if I was from NH. She grew up on west coast, but her mother grew up in same little town in NH and I sounded just like her mom! Of course I had lived in some exciting places like Boston along the way, but guess I maintained that accent in spite of all the teasing and other influences along the way!

  10. Half the family on my mother’s side was French Canadian (with a few other French scattered around). When I did my DNA, I expected: French-30%. However, it turned out I was a Viking! Indeed the Normans were Norsemen.

  11. I was once asked if I was from Minnesota when my family visited the Shaker Village in NH. I don’t think it is genetic, but may be locale based. There are towns in NH which have a high number of Irish and Scandinavian foundation families. They seem to be isolated/segregated from the English and/or the French-centric towns. I lived in NH at the time, and knew my own family was from Minnesota, but I wasn’t the one they were looking at. They were really questioning my in-laws. They were of Swedish descent and we all came from a midwestern town near Ohio that has the largest Swedish-ancestral population in the country, per capita. But there is even one other thing… I knew my Irish speaking great grandmother, who lived in Swedish Minnesota married an Irishman from Wisconsin who lived in a largely German area. I think there is a concentration of immigrants in the upper midwest, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and maybe other places that are a mix of German-Irish Catholics and Scandinavian/Scots-Irish. In these pockets, most famously parts of Minnesota, you have a residual locality dialect. So it is not who you are as much as where you learned to speak. To this day I can’t do an Irish accent without falling into Swedish rhythms (where I grew up) and occasionally Danish (German-Scandinavian) sounds from the accent of my Danish grandmother. The “Gaelic” connection in these languages must be very strong, and because they were segregated from British English, have recombined and survived in local dialect. Fascinating to consider.

  12. Very interesting post, Julie! I was once pretty close to pursuing an MA in linguistics (and am a quarter Swedish), but I never really thought about a connection between linguistics and genealogy before.

  13. Very interesting. Sometimes it seems that I can guess where someone is from by the way they speak. As an army brat, I don’t know what I might show. I do know that I mimicked the accents where I lived. The most recent immigrants in my family came from Sweden in 1880s, but no one in the family had any thing I could identify as Scandinavian.

  14. It might be interesting to take another look at David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion Seed”. It gives an excellent look at the four different major cultural folkways that provided the majority population cultural sources for our country. There is a list of folkways for each, and if occupations, heritage holidays, or cultural traditions were handed down, there could be certain accompanying ceremonies or rituals that were accompanied by specific language patterns. I study language and language teaching, and most linguistic patterning should come from the environment experienced in language immersion as a child. Research indicates that children who merely hear certain phonemes at an early age appear to be more able to reproduce them later, even if they do not become fluent at an early age. This is only one of the underpinnings of preferring an early childhood language learning experience.

  15. I, too, was surprised by the large amount of Scandinavian that showed up in my DNA test. When telling a young friend, whose last name happened to be Olafson about this result, he said “I don’t know why you’re so surprised–we Vikings really got around” “Nuff said!

  16. This is interesting, but everyone commenting seems to miss one possibility. The structure of the throat and its environs have something to do with how you speak. I am a good example. I sound like my mother, she sounded like her mother, and I have been assured that my grandmother sounded like her mother. It is more than learned intonations. We truly sound alike. I fondly imagine that we all sound(ed) like a proper early 1800s English laborer. Admitted, the more generations pass, the less likely that a person’s build will remain like her ancestors’, but given strong dominant genes, anything is possible.

    1. But is it genetic or environmental? Our mother’s voice is the one we are exposed to from before we are born, and whose voice we imitate when learning to communicate, so it only seems natural that we would sound like her.

  17. My late wife grew up in Cazenovia, New York, just east of Syracuse. During WWII her family lived in Buffalo and she attended high school there. One day they had a guest speaker at assembly, a linguist. At one point, he asked students who had not grown up in Buffalo to raise their hands. He then had them repeat a sentence (which gave him the general area), and then had them say another sentence (which narrowed it down for him). My wife raised her hand and uttered the first sentence. Without hesitating, the speaker instantly said, “Cazenovia, New York.” This special area (which I later fell in love with) seemed to have a distinct accent.
    I grew up in mid-continental-accented Northern Ohio, but I have lived in Minnesota since 1956. This state is still a real mix of descendants from many backgrounds, even though German and Scandinavian predominate. The Iron Range is a much more ethnic mix.
    David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed is one of my favorite books. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the impact of English and Scottish immigrants on American culture.

  18. English ancestry may often come up as “Scandinavian” in 23andMe and AncestryDNA tests, because the Anglo-Saxons and “Danes” came from Scandinavia before settling in Britain in the 400s-500s, and 800s-900s A.D.

    1. As for the “Scandinavia” accent that the linguist detected, I wonder if that might not be the “Northern” regional accent that one often hears in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and northern Michigan and other areas near Canada. I wouldn’t know, but might there be similarities of pronunciation between people from Minnesota and northern New Hampshire? While Minnesota has had heavy settlement by Scandinavian immigrants, speaking somewhat like a Minnesotan of Scandinavian descent need not mean one has any recent Scandinavian ancestry.

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