Wisconsin Englishes

Here are a few aspects of Wisconsin English varieties that we are investigating:


Please refer to the Introduction of Wisconsin Talk for more information about this topic!

Linguists make a distinction between vowels (sounds characterized with a lot of oral resonance, such as aaaah and eeeeeh) and consonants (those with little resonance, such as p, t, k, s, etc.).

Sociolinguistic work on American English has focused mainly on vowels and as a result, we know a fair bit about Wisconsin vowels, which is what we’ll focus on in this section.

Vowel Patterns in Wisconsin

Two major patterns of vowel changes currently underway in American English meet in Wisconsin. The eastward change is where the words caught and cot come to be pronounced essentially the same (as opposed to being distinct). The westward change is where vowels rotate (or replace each other) in words, such that you would say six like sex, sex like sucks, sucks like Saux's, Saux’s like socks, and socks like sax. This replacement of certain vowel sounds by others is called the Northern Cities Shift, and it’s spread from New York as far as Madison.

Check out this interactive map of these features, developed in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin Engage project.

An Example Data Set

In order to demonstrate the variability of vowel pronunciation within Wisconsin, consider the recordings of six individuals recorded by John Westbury in the early 1990s at the University of Wisconsin 's X-ray Microbeam Laboratory in Madison.

These six individuals came from two different dialect regions: the North Central region (which includes Minnesota), and the Northern Cities/Inland North region (which spans the crescent below and between the Great Lakes from Madison, WI, to Syracuse and Rochester, NY, excluding some cities like Erie, PA, in between). The map below shows the locations of the subjects, with the white region representing the North Central region, the darker red representing the Upper Midlands region, and the lighter red representing the Northern Cities/Inland North region.

Dialect Map

The white star represents Madison, and the star plus the five blue diamonds represent speakers' dialect locales.

The subjects were recorded saying the main vowels of American English sandwiched between a /s/ and /d/ (e.g., said, sid, sayed). Vowels are categorized by linguists in terms of where the main constriction occurs in the mouth, so that the vowel in seed is considered a “high, front” vowel, while the vowel in sod is considered a “low, back” vowel.

Approximating these relative positions on a graph is fairly easy. One simply needs to have a tool such as a software package to calculate the resonances of the digitized sound file. Moreover, we can identify vowels by comparing the lowest three main resonances in the mouth (called formants, and labeled F1 for the lowest formant, F2 for the next one, and so on).

The figure below is a graphic representation of some of the vowels of the six speakers using a psychoacoustic scale (the Bark scale (Z)) that reflects both the linear and logarithmic aspects of the auditory system. Bark values were found by subtracting the first or second formant value from the third, respectively. Subjects are displays by dialect region (North Central vs. the Northern Cities/Inland North).

Figure 2

The top panel represents the three speakers from the North Central region, with the red vowels identifying the speaker closest to Minnesota. The bottom panel represents the three speakers from the Northern Cities region, with the red vowels representing the speaker from Milwaukee in the southeast part of Wisconsin.

These graphs are interesting because they shows that for the speaker closest to Minnesota, the caught~cot merger is complete: the two vowels are sitting in the same spot. Likewise, this subject has a fairly low vowel in sad, and especially lower and forward than the vowel in said. In contrast, the subject from Milwaukee has a distinct separation between the vowels in all four words. Yet, the vowels in sad and sid are quite close, with sad well above said (which looks like it is further back in the mouth than sod).

Another important marker of speakers from Wisconsin is the pronunciation of bags rhyming with begs. This shift from /a/ to /e/ is present all over the upper portion of the United States, from the Midwest to western Washington State, and even in the lower portion of Canada. But note that the shift is taking place at different rates in different words, depending on the final consonant (e.g., /g/ vs. /d/). Check out this map showing differences in the pronunciation of bag and bad using univariant and multidimensional symbols to represent vowel differences by locale.

And as an example of how older immigrant populations helped shape Wisconsin English, consider how many speakers in the southeastern and eastern parts of the state, particularly in old German, Polish and Dutch areas, say etch and edge the same (like etch), or almost the same. Such a pattern has its roots in these immigrant languages, which lack a distinction between “voiced” (b, d, g, etc.) and “voiceless” (p, t, k, etc.) consonants at the ends of words. For example, in German, bat ‘he/she offered’ and Bad ‘bath’ sound alike, both pronounced with a final t sound.

References and related publications

Jacewicz, Ewa, Joseph Salmons, and Robert Allen Fox. 2007. "Vowel Duration across Three American Dialects." American Speech 82.367-385.

2011 Ewa Jacewicz, Robert Allen Fox & Joseph Salmons. Vowel change across three age groups of speakers in three regional varieties of American English. Journal of Phonetics 39. 683-693.

2011 Ewa Jacewicz, Robert Allen Fox & Joseph Salmons. Cross-generational vowel change in American English. Language Variation and Change 23.45-86.

2011 Ewa Jacewicz, Robert Allen Fox & Joseph Salmons. Regional dialect variation in the vowel systems of normally developing children. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research 54.448-470.

2009 Ewa Jacewicz, Robert Allen Fox & Joseph Salmons. Articulation rate across dialect, gender and age. Language Variation & Change 21.233-256.

Purnell, Thomas. 2005. "The Secret Life of Vowels: Diphthongization, Mergers and Shifts." Paper presented to the Midwest meeting of the American Dialect Society. Milwaukee, November.

Purnell, Thomas, Joseph Salmons, Dilara Tepeli and Jennifer Mercer. 2005. "Structured Heterogeneity and Change in Laryngeal Phonetics: Upper Midwestern Final Obstruents." Journal of English Linguistics 33:4.307-338.

Purnell, Thomas. 2010. Phonetic detail in the perception of ethnic varieties of US English. In A Reader in Sociophonetics, eds. Dennis Preston and Nancy A. Niedzielski, pp. 289-326. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.