VI: Folklore

Dialect Jokes

            Traditional, humorous narratives featuring the regional, or class, or "native" language inflected dialect of a stock character in juxtaposition with Standard American English define the essence of dialect jokes. Such jokes emerged in the Midwest out of white-Indian contact as the former portrayed the latter via monosyllables and malaprops. Sheboygan, Wisconsin's name, for example, was attributed facetiously to a chief disappointed in his wife's delivery of yet another son: "Ugh, she boy 'gain!" Lower Midwesterners likewise have long imitated the speech of southern “hillbillies” or “briars” crossing the Ohio River as economic migrants, while white folks' jocular mimicry of African American patois persists.
            Used by cultural outsiders to signal difference and unease, dialect jokes also connote commonality and affection for cultural insiders. Comic tales with an added and dropped "h" still echo among Cornish in Upper Midwestern mining communities: a tool handle supposedly either "hoak, hash, or helm" is actually "'ickory." Meanwhile those of Norwegian and Swedish descent savor updated tales of Ole and Lena rendered in their ancestors' "broken English": Ole scoffs at George W. Bush's boast of an Ivy League education, "Yah, vell, aye been to yail too."
            The polyglot culture of Indian and immigrant farmers, fishers, loggers, and miners extending from the Upper Peninsulaof Michigan through northern Wisconsin and Minnesota has particularly fostered the egalitarian exchange of dialect stories by raconteurs adept at shifting from Cornish to Finnish to French to Italian to Ojibwe to "Scandihoovian" to Slavic contributions to their region's shared vernacular. Indeed fieldwork in Michigan's "UP" inspired Richard Dorson to proclaim the dialect story a "new form of American folklore."

James P. Leary

University of Wisconsin
Richard M. Dorson, "Dialect Stories of the Upper Peninsula: A New Form of American Folklore," Journal of American Folklore 61 (April-June 1948); James P. Leary, So Ole Says to Lena (2001); George T. Springer, Yumpin' Yimminy (1932).