Fargo accent and dialect notes

I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your policework there, Lou.

I’ve always loved the Coen brothers’ films, and Fargo (1996) was the first I saw on the big screen. Since then I’ve returned to it several times, and consider it one of their best. (I’m tempted to write about why, but I should stick to language here.)

Fargo is eminently quotable, and its regional Minnesota accents – the brothers are natives – add greatly to its character and texture. Few viewers can resist trying out an “Oh yah”, “Aw geez” or “You betcha” after seeing it. Here’s a charming scene featuring local actor and theatre director Bain Boehlke (skip to 0:30):

And an earlier scene also taking place in the Brainerd area (warning: slightly spoilery if you haven’t watched the film):

*

A few months back I tweeted an image from Minnesota Nice, a short documentary on the making of Fargo, showing a portion of the script with pronunciation notes. It sparked a bit of discussion among linguists and dialect buffs, some of it visible under the tweet. After revisiting the DVD lately, I figured I’d share the image again here (© MGM):

Frances McDormand, who plays the unforgettable Marge Gunderson, and won an Academy award for the performance, said:

Marge was the most pronounced accent. Generations of her family came from there. So she wore it as a badge of authenticity. I was trying to make it authentic. I worked with a really wonderful dialect coach, Liz Himelstein, who is great because she just doesn’t work with the technique of a dialect, she works with the character of a dialect. We really worked on how it could come out of me, through the script and then become Marge Gunderson.

Minnesota Nice briefly shows a photo of the pair – at least I assume that’s Himelstein on the left – beneath an additional, more general page of notes on learning the accent:

Dialect Blog has an interesting post on the authenticity of accent and dialect in Fargo, and some comments suggest similarities between the Minnesota and western Irish accents – not something I was aware of. Any thoughts on this or related matters would be welcome.

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19 Responses to Fargo accent and dialect notes

  1. ucclangcent says:

    Always love your blog. Big fan of Coen bros. and Fargo would be up there as one of my favourites of theirs.

  2. Sile Nic Chonaonaigh says:

    Great post. Can’t wait to watch it again now.

  3. Perfect timing, here in Minneapolis we’re having our first snowfall of the season!
    Many of us Minnesoootan’s grimace when that film comes up in conversation, because of the exaggerated nature of the accents. It would be one thing if it was set 100 years ago, when folks were new in this country. But today, it’s hyperbole (linguistically speaking). Also the general view here would be that those accents are from Swedish-speaking folks I think.. Irish accents (like my relatives) would have been in the Chicago area generations ago, and quickly discarded (sad to say) in the hopes of .. fitting in.
    But we do talk that way for humor – it’s an instant way of generating a smile, don’tcha know? Let me go heat up my breakfast hotdish..
    Have to end with an Ole and Lena joke.. Ole thought his car blinker was broken, so he asked Lena to go check if it was working.. standing in front of the car, she answered: Yes No Yes No.. :)

  4. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Stan,

    In that rather murky attached B&W photo backdrop of “Marge”s dialect notes, that could very well be “Fargo” voice coach Himelstein on the left. But I think actor Steve Buscemi, who plays the demented hired kidnapper Carl Showalter in the film, is the person next to her holding the glass…. not McDormand.

    (Those Buscemi pursed lips and beady, baggy eyes do not lie. HA!)

    Frances McDormand is much more attractive as a woman, (which she actually is…Dah!), than Steve Buscemi is as a man. Just Sayin’.

    (A face only a mother could love? Ow!…. that’s cruel.)

    [spoiler warning follows – Stan]
    Poor Carl Showalter (Buscemi’s disturbed character in the film), as fans of the movie likely vividly recall, has a most ignominious fate, ending up as human fodder for a voracious wood-chipper. Yah betcha.

  5. Ben T-S says:

    That Minnesota accents sometimes sound vaguely similar to Western Irish ones is coincidence, although the similarities are likely due to both being influenced by non-English languages. In variants of both accents the vowels in “beat,” “bait,” “bot,” “boat” and “boot” are fairly close to the “i, e, a, o, u” you find in many Romance languages. (In most British and American accents, these vowels tend to be laxer, more diphthongized, or more centralized). I find that you see a similar tendency toward more cardinal vowels in Welsh, Chicano English, and Hawaiian English. There are often some superficial phonetic similarities, in other words, shared by Englishes that were learned by a non-English-speaking population within the past few centuries.

  6. Stan says:

    ucclangcent: Thanks very much. It would probably be top 5 Coens for me too, though some of the 5 tend to change!

    Síle: It’s a super film, and definitely rewards a revisit.

    Claire: Very interesting, and I love the Ole and Lena joke. I was hoping to hear from a Minnesotan to get an idea of how exaggerated the accents were and how they were received locally. (American movie renditions of Irish accents are often lamentable.) The Coens did tone down their customary caricaturing for Fargo, and it’s perhaps more affectionate than in other films they’ve made, but it is apparently still there.

    Alex: No, the photo shows McDormand on the right. I’m not sure why you gave away part of the ending; some readers will not have seen the film and may still hope to. I’ve taken the liberty of adding a spoiler warning to your comment.

    Ben: Thanks for the helpful analysis. I had wondered whether the suggested similarities were coincidental or pointed to something historical and more directly causal.

  7. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Stan,

    I apologize for not giving a spoiler alert w/ my earlier post. I just reckoned most folks had seen the film, since it’s kind of become a ’90s classic by now. But I admit, not very bright, or fair of me to give away part of the plot line. (Hadn’t had my first cup o’ mornin’ java yet…. but no excuses.)

    Thanks for adding the spoiler warning, as well.

    I trust you with your assertion that that’s, indeed, McDormand and not Buscemi in the photo w/ dialect coach Himelstein. Frances must have had a bad hair day when it was taken. It’s rare to see her w/ a shortish coif, or ‘bob’, as well.

    Interestingly, in comparing several PR photos of both McDormand and Buscemi, online, they both appear to have rather similarly shaped full lips, and jaw lines.

  8. Ado_Annie says:

    Claire, I can empathize with the chagrin of hearing one’s own accent seemingly (or really) exaggerated. Here on the Gulf Coast of Texas (just south of Houston) I inwardly flinch to hear that twang that is so indicative of the area, but I only tend to hear it out of context. The exact same voice in an intimate or local setting seems much more normal, even unaffected in a roomful of voices. It was only being out of the state for several years (and being called Tex everywhere I visited) then returning that erased my tin ear for the twang and drawl. Dammit, we do talk like that. ;-)

    Stan, yes, Fargo is up there near the top of my favorite movies list, thanks for the clips. Now I have to pull it out of the DVD library for a revisit. McDormand is brilliant.

  9. Shaun Downey says:

    It struck me when I first saw the film that the accents were exaggerated for effect. Afterwards I met an ex’s mum who was from rural Minnesota herself. She loved the film and found the accents rather funny.

    Stil my favourite Coen film

  10. Stan says:

    Alex: It’s something of a ’90s classic all right, and deservedly so. I work on the cautious principle that no film is so famous it can’t be spoiled for someone!

    Annie: She really is. The Coens wrote Marge especially for McDormand, and she brought her brilliantly to life.

    Shaun: It seems the accents were exaggerated a bit, some of them at least, or considered all together. Miller’s Crossing was my favourite Coens film for a long time, but I would have to watch a few again to see if that’s still the case.

    • Claire Stokes says:

      Annie: yes, one loses the sound of one’s own (collective voices) till there’s distance to clarify. I lived on the East Coast during high school, and was always marked as an outsider. And then came home, much to those folks’ shock (you’re going back there? But.. you’re *here* now!) sigh. I’m sure Fargo made them even more perplexed about my choice.
      At least we aren’t from Canada, eh? :)
      Stan, the Coen brothers just always go too far for me. I can do black comedy when it’s within a certain boundary or something – like Harold and Maude is one of my all time favorites. But the Coen brothers do what the do so intensely, it undoes me. Once I’ve lived more, perhaps. I do love the humor and romance (w/n Marge’s marriage) of Fargo, and the exterior views (totally MN), and the few recognizable landmarks. Will also have to watch again now!

      • alexmccrae1546 says:

        Stan,

        I heartily support your principle of operating more on the side of caution re/ giving out too much salient info about ANY given film, in the event there is a good chance several folks, as yet, may not have caught that particular film.

        (I didn’t even see James Cameron’s “Titanic”. But I kinda know the ending. No spoiler alert required there. HA!)

        I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I’ve never seen the Coen Bros. zany flick, “The Big Lebowski”, in which Buscemi, John Goodman and Jeff Bridges star. I admittedly would be slightly miffed if someone revealed the key narrative twists in that now classic, cult-status film, prior to me actually viewing it.

        Lesson learned, eh?

  11. Lane says:

    The most Irish-sounding vowel to me is the [ai] in “I’m” and “right”, which she transcribes as “think UH-EE'”.

  12. I love the Coen Brothers, and Fargo is definitely one of their best. I have to admit that my real favorite is Raising Arizona, and I’ve always wondered about the accents in that movie. I was born in Arizona and still have a lot of family there, but the characters in the movie don’t sound like any Arizonans I know.

  13. wisewebwoman says:

    Up there on my top 50 list of all time, Stan. Another Coen fave is “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?”.

    I’ve seen Fargo more than a few times and it still enthralls me, accents too.

    I guess us Oirish are so used to accent exaggeration we are almost desensitized at this stage.

    XO
    WWW

  14. Charles Sullivan says:

    I could swear there are Canadian accents and Native (Indian–First Nations) accents in the US and Canada that sound like ‘thicker’ versions of these Minnesota accents.

    • Claire Stokes says:

      It does seem like that to me too, speaking as a non-linguist though. Some other films that could possibly confirm/deny (and that I also like quite a lot): Frozen River (Canadian & Native), and Powwow Highway (Native, from next door in South Dakota). Also the Dakota Commemorative March is going on right now http://www.gotothecrow.com/2012/11/2012-dakota-commemorative-march/ .. various coverages of that would provide current spoken language samples.

  15. Stan says:

    Lane: Maybe. That note confused me a bit, because I don’t hear any “UH-EE” vowels.

    Jonathon: Raising Arizona may well’ve been the first of their films I saw, and I’ve seen it once or twice since, but I don’t remember the accents in it. Will have to go back for a proper listen. There could be a cross-blog series in this!

    WWW: Oh yes, O Brother… is another gem, and a glorious soundtrack. And you’re right, Oirish cinematic stereotypes (phonetic and otherwise) are like water off a duck’s back by now.

    Charles: I will take your word for that. Accents were never my strong point, though I do enjoy their boundless variety.

  16. Martin Doonan says:

    I remember seeing this in the cinema with a Norwegian friend of mine who also spent some time living up that way. She thought the accents were hilarious but indicative of the large numbers of Scandinavian descent living in the area. that’s why I think the Swedish references. the accents portrayed in the film also have striking similarities to rural Norwegian & Swedish I’ve come across (after some years living in remote Norway).

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