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Get your sisu on

‘Yooper words’ subject of university survey

Wil Rankinen, Ph.D., assistant professor and undergraduate program director of communication sciences and disorders at Grand Valley State University, talks about “Words and Yooper Identity” on Monday at the Peter White Public Library. GVSU has undertaken several surveys relating to the Upper Peninsula and language. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — The Upper Peninsula probably is the only place in the world where someone might understand this sentence: “You might be hungry for a slice of cudighi pizza if you pank down the 5 feet of snow on your camp’s front porch wearing your choppers.”

Words unique to the U.P. were the subject of a Monday presentation at the Peter White Public Library titled “Words and Yooper Identity.”

Wil Rankinen, Ph.D., and assistant professor and undergraduate program director of communication sciences and disorders at Grand Valley State University, said GVSU has been involved in several surveys relating to the U.P. and its unique language.

He focused Monday on the U.P. Words Survey, a web-based project to plot regional variations in the use of various U.P. words, such as sisu and swampers, for local and non-local residents across the Upper Midwest.

The survey, Rankinen said, addresses three main questions:

≤ Which U.P. words are used and/or heard more frequently in specific areas of the peninsula?

≤ How strong are people’s feelings about these particular words?

≤ To what degree are U.P. words tied to what people think of a Yooper identity or an individual’s identity?

“Why vocabulary?” Rankinen asked. “Vocabulary is actually kind of a lot of fun.”

People, he said, become bored when discussing sounds but get excited about talking about words such as “sauna” (pronounced either SAW-nah or SOW-nah).

Rankinen acknowledged being a “SOW-nah” user, but will defend people who use the Anglicized version instead of the Finnish one.

“There isn’t a right or wrong answer here in terms of linguistic arguments,” he said, “but if you want to maintain that pronunciation and you were trying to exhibit your identity, and retain that construct and retain that identity, you are going to argue and fight tooth and nail — and the research in the sauna survey doesn’t disappoint.”

(There also was a GVSU survey on this word.)

The online U.P. Words Survey uses zip codes since the database of zip codes, and their latitudes and longitudes, are used to plot data on a map of the Upper Midwest.

Participants must be a native English speaker; have been raised and/or lived half of their lives in Michigan, Wisconsin or Minnesota; and be age 18 or older.

The survey delves into factors such as frequency of the word’s use, how often it’s heard, a person’s willingness to correct someone who’s misusing it and the importance of the word to an individual’s identity.

Rankinen said “camp” — a secondary home — is used across the U.P., whereas in downstate Michigan, residents typically think a camp involves a tent.

Less common across the U.P. is the use of the word “cudighi,” a type of Italian sausage.

It is, however, used and heard locally and is strongly tied to people’s identity, he said.

“There’s a huge concentration smack dab in the Marquette area, typically thought of as the north central area,” Rankinen said.

It just so happens people of Italian descent live in areas of Marquette County.

“Sisu” is a Finnish word that denotes fortitude and determination — much needed during the U.P.’s long and harsh winters.

“Frequency of use really is found on the west end, either the northwest or the north central region of the U.P., which is not that big of a surprise since it’s a Finnish word,” Rankinen said.

Again, the Finnish influence is felt more in the Keweenaw Peninsula than in other regions.

A “chook” — originally spelled toque — is a French-derived word for hat, he said.

“When I was growing up, my father used this word quite often,” Rankinen said.

His father, being a Finlander in the Republic area, he would say, “Get your chook,” which Rankinen said resulted in a “huh?” response.

It was a word he heard more among older populations while he was growing up.

Currently, the frequency of the word’s use in the U.P. is mostly in the south-central region — which has more of a French-Canadian influence than other peninsula areas.

“It’s a unique word, and it’s not widely spoken or used across the U.P.,” Rankinen said, “but it is still being used. The question is, this data does not show age differences, and that would be something I would need to look at in more detail down the road.”

Boots sometimes are called “swampers,” which Rankinen noted is used the most in the northwest U.P. Most common on the west coast is the word “pank,” such as “panking down” snow.

“Choppers” are leather mittens, which Rankinen said follows the trend of northwest U.P. use, although it has the least amount of connection to a local identity.

The survey brings up questions.

“Why is the central region the place where we have strong ties of not only the importance to our identity but our willingness to correct other people?” Rankinen asked.

Further analysis, he said, would require distinguishing between “camp” or other words such as “cottage” or “cabin.”

“Can they be exchanged evenly without any issues, or are there subtle differences, and are those differences distributed based on geographic differences or other socio-differences like age?” he said.

Even the word “Yooper,” Rankinen noted has different meanings to various people, with some considering it a derogatory term.

Then there’s the “Yooper accent,” which wasn’t always held in the highest esteem. In fact, one woman in the audience said at Northern Michigan University in the 1960s, students who displayed such an accent were told to get rid of it.

Rankinen said English is the dominant language in areas with a Finnish or Italian ancestry, for example, but the mother tongues still have a lingering effect.

“It’s because of their influence from generation to generation and how that’s tied to identity,” he said.

To take the U.P. Words Survey, visit https://www.gvsu.edu/csd/ the-up-words-survey-37.htm.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.