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CSUMC Friends Newsletter, Spring 2004, Vol. 2, No. 1 Become a member of the CSUMC Friends CSUMC home page Contact us Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures Home Page

'American Languages' explores linguistic landscape of our region

1965 photo of Ruth Porter looking at a frying pan.
Frying pan? Skillet? Spider? DARE fieldworker Ruth Porter pondering some of the many words Americans use to describe this object, 1965. Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin– Madison Archives.

This year, CSUMC’s institutional sibling, the Max Kade Institute, in partnership with the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) and the Mills Music Library, was awarded a $234,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for a three-year project titled “American Languages.” A primary goal of this project is the digitization of mainly reel-to-reel recordings of German and English dialects spoken in Wisconsin, the Upper Midwest, and beyond. Secondarily we aim to make information from and about these recordings accessible to scholars and the general public over the Internet.

One of the traditional strengths of the MKI has been the documentation of the speech German-speaking immigrants to North America and their descendants. Currently, our North American German Dialect Archive contains thousands of hours of interviews, some going as far back as the 1940s. Although the quality of most of these recordings is technically quite good, reel-to-reel tape is a fragile medium, so digitization is a must. For its part, DARE has a wealth of primary material, also quite fragile, documenting the regional variety found in American English. Finally, the Mills Music Library is home to an amazing collection of old and rare 78 rpm recordings of ethnic music, skits, and monologues produced in the Upper Midwest and elsewhere in North America, a significant portion of which we plan on digitizing as well.

Through “American Languages” we aim to document and interpret the linguistic and cultural landscape of our region through these important firsthand historical records. One of the best prisms through which we can understand the human experience is language, as it is manifested in both speech and music. Many of the interviewees and performers in these recordings speak directly to the cultural and linguistic contact found in North America, including the experience of immigration. These speakers’ stories, and how they are told, will be of vital interest to scholars and members of the public interested in language, history, and folklore, among other fields.

We have begun “American Languages” by focusing on materials relating to Wisconsin, and eventually work our way outward across the Upper Midwest. We have hired a project assistant, Stacey Erdman, a graduate student in Library and Information Studies with expertise in archiving, who is helping us to design a virtual interface for these materials once they are digitized, which will also include transcripts (and translations) and interpretive essays. At this point, we envision users beginning with a clickable map, say, of Wisconsin, that will allow them to access excerpts of recordings relating to specific localities. These excerpts will be selected both for their linguistic interest, as well as their content. Listening to the voices of people, now long gone, telling of their life experiences is an exciting way of making history come alive and deepening our appreciation of the cultural diversity of the Upper Midwest.

Mark L. Louden is director of the Max Kade Institute for German American Studies at UW–Madison.

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Last updated: August 11, 2003

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