Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures Friends Newsletter, Vo. 1, No. 2, Fall 2003

Howling with the Wisconsin wolves

One of my regular outreach presentations is “Languages of Wisconsin,” a Cook’s tour of the linguistic landscape of our state, both past and present. The talk covers three major areas, Native languages, immigrant languages, and the varieties of English spoken in Wisconsin. In searching recently for information on Wisconsin English, I turned to H. L. Mencken’s classic American Language. Though there isn’t an overwhelming amount of Wisconsin-specific data mentioned there, Mencken did make some intriguing references to excerpts from a couple of letters to the editor that appeared in the “From the People” section of the Milwaukee Journal in 1947. So I hightailed it to the Wisconsin Historical Society Library and located the full texts on microfilm, digging up in the process a number of things not mentioned in Mencken. Reading these half-century-old letters about English in Wisconsin, and most importantly, people’s perceptions of it, is fascinating, so I thought I’d share their full texts here and discuss some of the more interesting points the unnamed writers raise.

The first letter to appear that started the discussion about Wisconsin English was printed on April 25, 1947, and given the title “Wisconsin’s Own Language.” It was signed “Curious,” a reader living in Tomahawk, Wisconsin. Here’s the full text, just as it appeared in the Journal:

To The Journal: I came to Wisconsin from New Jersey. And in all my travels in 23 states I have never heard people talk like they do here.

Can it be that Wisconsin has a language all its own? Some of the people I have in mind are high school graduates. Others have had further education. So apparently it isn’t the lack of training.

A few examples of what I mean are: “That’s for sure,” in lieu of “definitely,” “absolutely” or “positively.” Panes of glass are “window lights.” The word “ever” appears constantly. “Is it ever cold” or “Was I ever glad,” even in the papers and on the radio. Bedroom or house slippers are “morning slippers.” What happens if one wears them at night? A gal’s slip suddenly becomes an “underskirt,” stockings or hosiery are “socks” regardless of the length. Pursued or chased is “took after.” In New Jersey “took after” means resemblance. A photographer’s studio, eastern version, is a “picture gallery.” “I’ll borrow you $5,” instead of “loan” or “lend.” “Did you find back your pocketbook?” Why the “back”?

I haven’t heard anyone say “Hello” or “How do you do.” The accepted salutation is “Hi,” which is all right for some occasions. But, coming from business people and the aged, it sounds very silly to me.

At the movies, instead of requesting tickets for adults and children, they say “small” and “large.”

The worst one of all though is the practice of calling food whether it’s eaten at midnight or in the morning a “lunch.” To me, lunch or luncheon is the meal served at noon or 1 p.m. Snacks, a sandwich or anything light are “refreshments.”

I’m trying to retain my own style of speaking and writing but find it increasingly difficult.

I’m not writing this letter to complain. [Of course not, why would anyone think that?—MLL.] There are a lot of grand things in Wisconsin. But frankly I find much to be desired as far as speaking, writing and spelling are concerned. [Signed: CURIOUS, Tomahawk, Wis.]

Among the various linguistic pet peeves Curious mentions, it’s interesting to note just how many would scarcely raise the eyebrow of even the most peevish language critic today, including the expression That’s for sure and the use of ever as an intensifying adverb.

In the hosiery department, Curious puts his or her finger on an interesting shift in the meanings of socks and stockings. Before the advent of what we also call nylons, socks were short and stockings were long. Now, the distinction between the two words is not according to length, but material. And as long as we’re in the clothing department, underskirt is an old word that meant exactly what it looks like, not to mention the German Unterrock.

Curious’s problem with hi in relatively formal contexts seems strange to our modern ears. Hi, hey, hallo, and hello are all very old English words used originally to get people’s (or animals’) attention; later, they became interjections signifying that the utterer is paying attention to someone else. A quick look in a massive Webster’s from 1956 includes hey, hallo, and hello, but no hi—this must have been viewed by lexicographers (inclined as Curious was in 1947) as being too colloquial.

Of the other words and usages Curious cites, many are still nonstandard, but also very widespread and almost certainly not limited to Wisconsin in the 1940s. The use of borrow as a synonym for lend, the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) tells us, is attested in many parts of the U.S., especially in the Upper Midwest. DARE also points out the parallel with borrow’s modern German cousin, borgen, which means both borrow and lend, a possible factor is reinforcing what was probably an old English pattern anyway. (The situation in Norwegian and Swedish is similar: both English borrow and lend corresponding to a single verb låne/låna [cf. English loan], though sometimes followed by a preposition-like particle.) I’m not sure what the provenance of find back and take after is, but German or Scandinavian influence might be at play here too. Did any of our readers every look through window lights or buy small tickets at the movies?

Lunch is an interesting one. Although Webster’s and other standard dictionaries define this as a noonday meal, DARE demonstrates its widespreadedness as a word for snack taken at any time of the day (as in my personal favorite, a little lunch). The origins of this word are uncertain (one dictionary I consulted posited a Spanish source, lonja), but what is clear is that this word goes back to England, where it originally meant a chunk or piece of food ... eaten between meals.

So back to Wisconsin in 1947. On April 29, “A. S. G.” from Milwaukee replied to Curious’s letter as follows:

To The Journal: “Wisconsin’s Own Language” interpreted at Tomahawk! As a fellow of Weehawken (N.J.) would say, “It’s a molder!”

This is, of course, in answer to a letter from the skoit who signed her letter “Curious.” And I assume she is a skoit, for only the female would use a signature such as that. That’s for sure. Curiosity killed a cat once, you know!

While Wisconsin may not be a center of cosmopolitan or pedantic tastes, it does have a homespun, intimate, conversational pattern of speaking which it can call its very own.

It’s true that Weehawken has a picturesque manner of expression but I have often wondered if the impediment may have been as a result of many years of carefully cultivated speech

We in Wisconsin are very sorry that we have been unable to keep up with an advanced state, such as New Jersey. However, we assure “Curious,” we definitely enjoy their Brooklynese accent, even if it has been borrowed. And only the minority in New Jersey speak it.

Personally, I doubt very much whether “Curious” has ever been further east than Chicago. In passing, may the writer advise “Curious” to first attain the style of speaking and writing peculiar to the people of New Jersey before she attempts to correct and belittle the interesting minority in Wisconsin?

Pardon me while I retire to the dining room for a “refreshment.” [Signed: A. S. G., Milwaukee.]

Now isn’t this ... er ... curious. A. S. G., reading more into the first letter than I certainly did, assumes that Curious is a woman, since he (A. S. G., I’m assuming) couldn’t imagine a man identifying himself in this way. In any case, A. S. G.’s right-back-atcha response invokes what is one most of the broadly negative stereotypes of eastern U.S. speech, namely the much hyped “Toity-Toid and Toid” accent of Brooklyn. A. S. G. isn’t too bothered by the fact that New Jersey English is somewhat different from that of its metropolitan neighbor one state over, but he does make the important point that judgments about regional speech are all relative.

This enlightened position about the linguistic diversity of the American landscape is picked up on by two more letters “From the People” that appeared on May 5, 1947:

To The Journal: To “Curious,” who recently wrote on “Wisconsin’s Own Language,” may I say that living in six states and visiting and traveling in the other 42 has given me to believe that each state has its own language.

Wyoming has its “spuds,” Oklahoma its “taters,” a “pail” in the middle west is a “bucket” in the east, a “poke” in the south is a “sack” in the east and a “bag” in Wisconsin. In Wyoming a spot of green grass in a “valley” is a “meadow”; a “farm” is a “ranch.”

While a New Jersey stranger in Wisconsin wonders at our language, we of Wisconsin would do the same in New Jersey.

Most of this is due to the type of foreigner who settled in this or that part of our United States. We are a melting pot and speak a mixed language with disregard for correct English. Moving from Brown county, where Germans and Belgians are many, to Door county’s Scandinavian population, it is very noticeable that our English is a mixup of this and that. [Signed: TRAVELER, 358 N. 3rd St., Sturgeon Bay, Wis.]

To The Journal: In reply to the letter written by the person who signed himself “Curious,” I wish to say that although I have not traveled in 23 states, I have been outside of Wisconsin enough to know that each state has a few customs and slang phrases of its own. There is a saying that “When you are with the wolves, you howl with them.” I am not implying the one should use incorrect language, but I do not think that a few misuses of the English language is a crime.

I wonder how perfect New Jersey is with its pronunciation of “r” as “ah”? If we want to get technical, we can find something wrong with the action or speech of each state, community or individual.

Some of the corrections made were right, of course, but “bedroom” or “house” slippers can be worn out of doors. “Gal” is one of the most vulgar pronunciations of the word “girl” I have ever heard, though it’s apparently used in New Jersey. “Hi” may be a shortened form of “hello” or “how do you do,” but then bowing and curtseying went out with the turn of the century, too.

As for the use of the word “lunch,” dinner was the name given to the noonday meal, and supper referred to the evening meal. Lunch meant a snack taken at most any time of day. The upper “400” decided that dinner and supper were too common for their society use, so they called their evening meal dinner and the noon meal became lunch or luncheon. Many working people have changed the two about to suit their own needs.

As one of Wisconsin’s potential teachers, I don’t think the language used in Wisconsin is any worse than that used in New Jersey or any other state. Maybe that’s because I hail from Wisconsin! [Signed: F. L. F., Theresa, Wis.]

Good for you, F. L. F.; I wish I had had you for my teacher. And thanks, Traveler, for reminding us of one very important point about how American English has become so linguistically (and culturally and culinarily) enriched—through the “mixup” of people from various backgrounds, Native, Yankee, and immigrant.

Finally, on May 9, 1947, after these relatively enlightened critical responses to Curious, a last, curmudgeonly letter from “Reformer” in Milwaukee appeared:

To The Journal: I’m not from New Jersey and I don’t pretend to be an authority on the English language. I was born and reared 130 miles from this city. I’ve done some traveling and lived in different cities, but I still insist that you haven’t heard anything until you hear the way Milwaukeeans use the English language.

I really dread raising my child in this city for that reason. She’s only 6 and still says “I’m going to grandmother’s house” instead of “I’m going by grandma’s house,” so I have hopes. She hasn’t acquired that expression “ana.”

“Youse” and “ain’t” are commonly used in Milwaukee. The illogical sequence of words in sentences and mispronunciations are among the more common errors. And the word “first”—they put it in some strange place in the sentence and give it a strange meaning!

I ride on the buses and streetcars often. It is seldom that one hears a perfect sentence.

Milwaukeeans don’t realize that they aren’t talking properly. Even teachers and radio announcers are not free from these local errors. I’ll wager that 90% of the people who visit here from out of the state do laugh at the way Milwaukeeans talk.

But what to do about it—that’s another question. [Signed: REFORMER, N. 37th St., Milwaukee.]

Oh boy, here we go again. All right, a(in)na (< ain’t it, a tag question used mainly by German-speaking immigrants; thanks again, DARE!) is still fairly regional; so is the German-Americanism first as a synonym for just, as in I first came. And even though youse and ain’t (of very old provenance in the history of English ... and logical: you (singular) + -s (plural) = youse) ain’t so regionally limited, the palettes of Mark Twain and many other superior writers would be much blander without them.

But let me counter Reformer by wagering that 90% of American English speakers would no longer wince if I were to go by grandma’s house (for a little lunch, perhaps?). What to do about it? (A perfect sentence.) Hmmm ... is that ever tricky, that’s for sure.

Mark Louden is professor of German at UW–Madison and Director of the Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies.

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Last updated: August 11, 2003