Winter 2019

Vocal range

Photography by Derek Montgomery

What’s in Trevor Winger’s backpack? A digital audio recorder. Last year, Winger, a University of Minnesota Duluth senior majoring in linguistics and three other fields, took it to bars and coffee shops in Minnesota’s Iron Range communities to record his conversations with local residents. 

The talks, which sometimes spanned hours and covered everything from family to politics, are the raw material for his study on the language of the Iron Range. Winger and professor Chongwon Park are looking at one specific aspect of the dialect: how people in northeastern Minnesota use reflexive pronouns (those that end in “self”). They hope to learn whether the usage (“John thinks Mary loves himself,” for example) is unique to the Range. “It breaks the conventional rules of standard English,” he says.

Winger is no stranger to the sounds of the Range. He grew up in Mountain Iron, home to the state’s biggest iron ore mine. His family has lived there for generations. “My great-grandpa was one of the first certified welders in the state,” he says. 

By transcribing and analyzing the dozen or so conversations with study participants, who ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s, Winger hopes to document and preserve a way of speaking. “This is an aging area,” he says. “The population is dying and the dialect may be, too.”

Winger plans to earn a doctorate in linguistics and is thankful for the Retta and Henry Ehlers Scholarship and other support. “I can’t express enough gratitude,” he says. “Not having to worry about the debt I would be accumulating is huge, and with going to grad school, that makes a difference.”