Minnesota: A Brief History of a Midwestern Linguistic Melting Pot

When most people think of the cultural and linguistic melting pots in the United States, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami likely top that list. What most people don’t know, however, is that Minnesota and the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan area has a long history of linguistic and cultural diversity which has shaped this community that was built and enriched by immigrant populations (and their descendants) from all over the world.

The first major wave of immigrants arrived in Minnesota during the 19th century led primarily by Germans and Irish settlers, many of whom ended up working on rural farms. One of the primary driving forces for attracting German settlers was the Commissioner of Emigration in the Minnesota Territory, led by Eugene Burnand.

These German and Irish settlers were soon followed by immigrants from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland. The Scandinavian and Nordic immigrants generally settled in their own distinctive community groups as opposed to blended communities with other Scandinavian or Nordic immigrants. Other groups with significant populations included immigrants from several Slavic countries. By the late 1800s, it was estimated that roughly 37 percent of Minnesota’s population was foreign-born.

Each of these distinctive groups brought with them their languages, cultures, and foods. Even though the native languages of many of these earlier settlers have long since died out as a result of assimilation, many traditions, regionalized lexicon, and popular regional foods (such as lefse and pickled herring) have continued to thrive. Linguistically, the Upper Midwestern English accent found in Minnesota and other parts of the Midwest today is believed by linguists to have been heavily influenced by the Scandinavian languages.

The next major wave of immigration to Minnesota came during the mid-1970s, as many Vietnamese and Hmong relocated to Minnesota following the Vietnam War, where many had supported the United States forces and feared persecution under the new Vietnamese regime. Ethnic Somalis also began resettling in Minnesota in the 1980s, followed by an even larger wave of Somali immigrants during the 1990s, as a result of civil strife and famine in the Horn of Africa. Other sizeable (and growing) immigrant communities in Minnesota include Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Laotian, Chinese, Thai, Karen, and Ethiopian.

Like their earliest immigrant predecessors from German, Ireland, and the Nordic countries, these “newer” immigrant groups have brought their diverse languages, cultures, and regional foods with them. For example, Somali immigrants own numerous businesses throughout the state, from stalls in shopping malls and money transfer services to restaurants and grocery stores. Somali community groups have also formed to support the interests of the local Somali population, Somali caucuses in political parties have been formed, and Rep. Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American and first refugee elected to Congress, for the 5th Congressional District of Minnesota.

Today, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center, roughly 11% of Minnesota residents aged 5+ speak a language other than English at home. The most common of these languages are Spanish (194,121 speakers), Hmong (58,833 speakers), and a variety of African languages (75,095), which include Somali, Amharic, Oromo, and others. A 2015 study conducted by the MinnPost also revealed that more than 100 languages are spoken in the state of Minnesota.

The large variety and diversity of foreign-born immigrants in the state of Minnesota, and especially in the Minnesota-St. Paul Metropolitan Area has made the state one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse in the Midwest. Moreover, this diverse melting pot has enriched the lives of all Minnesota residents, not only giving the immigrant population access to a world-class education system and business environment but also allowing Minnesotans to experience more of the world right on their doorstep.

Of course, the sizeable non-English speaking and Limited English Proficient (LEP) community has increased the need for professional translators and interpreters in languages such as Spanish, Hmong, Somali, Oromo, Chinese, Korean, Karen, and more. So as to be able to provide the needed access to services for the LEP population, the Minnesota government (as well as local municipalities) have enacted some of the most progressive and comprehensive language access plans and regulations in the country, such as the Language Access & Refugee Health program with the Minnesota Department of Health.

As an active member of the Minneapolis business community, Latitude Prime is also honored to play a role in helping to welcome our immigrant neighbors, no matter what language they speak, and to assist with their integration into the Minnesota community and access the important services they may need. Our services for the local LEP population include written translation for immigration documentation, public information into various languages, on-site interpretation services for immigration hearings, legal meetings, and much more.

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