Wisconsin Englishes

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

Effects of other languages on Wisconsin English

Please refer to the Introduction, Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 of Wisconsin Talk for more information about this topic!

In addition to sounds and words, there are also several developments in semantics, syntax and pragmatics that are connected to Wisconsin's and the Upper Midwest's settlement and bilingual history. When we talk about semantics, we're talking about the meanings of words. Syntax commonly refers to the combination of words into clauses, and clauses into discourse. Certain words always occur in a certain order or in a specific position, while others can vary where they occur in larger discourse. Often times changes in word order or the use of a word with a certain intonation gives the word or whole utterance a new meaning; the study of the ways and contexts in which language is used is referred to as pragmatics.

Wisconsin English varieties have developed such that we see parallels between the ways certain words are used in Wisconsin English and the (older) immigrant langauges spoken in the state. Here are a few examples:


The use of once in Wisconsin English, such as in “Stand up once,” does not mean that the act should be performed on one occasion, but rather, the once is used in discourse as a way of softening a request, in the same way that one might say "Please?" or "Won't you?". This particular lexical item is actually a direct translation of a very specific use of a German construction:

Steh mal auf
Stand once up

In Standard American English, “Steh mal auf” would be translated as “Please stand up” or “Won’t you stand up?”.  Additionally, mal has a number of additional meanings, including mathematical times, as in “Zwei mal drei” (Two times three); to express repetition, “Ich habe das hundertmal gesagt” (I have said that a hundred times); and to mean English once, in the past or one time, as in “Das hab’ ich (ein)mal gedacht” (I thought that once / I used to think that).

Many German immigrants who came to Wisconsin learned English as a second language, and in such concentrated communities and in such high numbers, the English they spoke included many words and phrases borrowed from German. More specifically, because German does not have a different lexical item to be used in different circumstances (i.e. Germans use the same word to mean once, times/multiplied by, one time, and please), German-Americans did not make a distinction between the different applications of what they used to know as a single word, mal.


Standard American English makes the distinction between still and yet, where still expresses an ongoing event, but yet expresses an event that has not yet begun. However, in German, there is no distinction, and the same word, noch, is used to express the meanings of both English yet and still. Because German immigrants did not make a distinction in their native language, they did not make a distinction between English still and yet, and when speaking English, they generalized one form for all instances. Because so many German immigrants settled in Wisconsin, speakers of Wisconsin English who were not necessarily German also incorporated this generalization into their normal speech.

what for

Normally expressed in Standard American English as “What kind (of)...” or “Which type (of)...”, some Wisconsin English speakers use phrases like “What for a beer do you want?” - This directly echoes the German construction “was für” - literally, “what for”.  Like a number of other Wisconsin English constructions, this example shows the salient influence of immigrant languages, like German, on the development of Wisconsin English varieties, as speakers learning English or who were bilingaul in both German and English used direct translations of constructions from their mother tongue. In contrast to the distinct uses of once and yet, the use of "What for..." appears sporadically today.

come with/bring with

The question "Are you coming with?" parallels constructions found in a number of different European languages, plus there are similar already existing patterns in English. This use of with without an object (e.g., "Are you coming with us?") appears widespread in the Midwest and beyond today. Many languages, such as German, Dutch, Yiddish, Norwegan, Swedish, and Danish, use an identical construction (note that mit, mee and med are all cognates (genetically related) to English with:

English: He’s coming along (with us)
WI Eng: He’s coming with
German: Er kommt mit
Dutch:    Hij komt mee
Swedish: Han kommer med

References and related publications

Benjamin, Steven M. and Luanne von Schneidemesser. 1979. "German Loanwords in American English, a Bibliography of Studies, 1872- 1978." American Speech 54.210-215.

Cassidy, Frederic G. and Joan Houston Hall, eds. 1985–2012. The Dictionary of American Regional English. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Schneidemesser, Luanne von. 1993. "More German Loanwords from the Dictionary of American Regional English." The German Language in America, 1683-1991. Joseph Salmons, ed. Madison: Max Kade Institute. 225-249.

Schneidemesser, Luanne von. 2002. "Settlement History in the United States as Reflected in DARE: The Example of German." American Speech 77.398-418.

2010 Joseph Salmons & Thomas Purnell. Language contact and the development of American English. The Handbook of Language Contact, ed. by Raymond Hickey. Oxford: Blackwell, 454-477.

2008 Dilara Tepeli, Joseph Salmons & Thomas Purnell. Was bleibt bestehen? Der deutsche Einfluß auf das Amerikanische. Die deutsche Präsenz in den USA / The German presence in the U.S.A., ed. by Josef Raab & Jan Wirrer, 745-763. Münster: LIT Verlag.

2006 Joseph Salmons, Dilara Tepeli & Thomas Purnell. Deutsche Spuren im amerikanischen Englischen? Auslautverhärtung in Wisconsin. Sprachinselwelten / The World of Language Islands ed. by Nina Berend & Elisabeth Knipf-Komlósi, 205-225. (= VarioLingua. Nonstandard - Standard - Substandard, 27.) Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang.

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.

Howell, Robert B. 1993. "German Immigration and the Development of Regional Variants of American English: Using Contact Theory to Discover Our Roots." The German Language in America, 1683-1991. Joseph Salmons, ed. Madison: Max Kade Institute. 190-212.

Larmouth, Donald. 1990. "Belgian English in Wisconsin's Door County Peninsula." Kansas Quarterly 22.4.135-41.

Purnell, Thomas, Dilara Tepeli, and Joseph Salmons. 2005. "German Substrate Effects in Wisconsin English: Evidence for Final Fortition." American Speech 80.135-164.

Salmons, Joseph, Dilara Tepeli, and Thomas Purnell. 2006. "Deutsche Spuren im amerikanischen Englischen." Deutsche Sprachinseln heute. Nina Berend and Elisabeth Knipf-Komlósi, eds. Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang.

Salmons, Joseph and Thomas Purnell. 2012. "Language Contact and the Development of American English." The Handbook of Language Contact. Raymond Hickey, ed. Oxford: Blackwell.

2008 Dilara Tepeli, Joseph Salmons & Thomas Purnell. Was bleibt bestehen? Der deutsche Einfluß auf das Amerikanische. Die deutsche Präsenz in den USA / The German presence in the U.S.A., ed. by Josef Raab & Jan Wirrer, 745-763. Münster: LIT Verlag.

Speth, Kristin. 2013. The non-Wisonsin sound of southwest Wisconsin. In Wisconsin Talk: Linguistic Diversity in the Badger State, eds. Thomas Purnell, Eric Raimy and Joseph Salmons, pp. 58-67. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.