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Boiled lawyer and the bubbler

By BRIAN O'CONNOR/Staff Reporter

Most people might not find the thought of a boiled lawyer very appetizing.

They might also not know the lawyer in question to be a fish, and not the be-suited denizens of the courts.

The expression is used in parts of the upper Midwest to describe a member of the cod family found in lakes and streams, according to Joan Houston Hall, the editor of the Dictionary of American Regional Expressions.

Of course, southeastern Wisconsinites and some New Yorkers are willing to stake their reputation on whether or not it's a bubbler or a drinking fountain. Unfortunately for the bubbler crowd, they'll always be in the minority — though not around here and a few other places in the United States, Houston Hall said.

"It turns out that if you draw a line around the places in Southeastern Wisconsin where this is the primary term for a water fountain, that area matches very closely the marketing area of the Kohler company in 1915," she said.

She pulled up a slide showing an advertisement for a water fountain featuring a "bubbler" valve.

"We think that's probably what happened," she said.

Houston Hall was one of three linguists who spoke about "Wisconsin Englishes," and Wisconsin regional dialect. They ruminated on the dems, ders, does, come with's, bubblers, and other oddities unique to Wisconsin, or not so unique to Wisconsin, as the case may be. Part of the problem is that though Wisconsinites stand apart with their shifty vowel sounds and insistence on eating unruly children — no, wait, sausages — on a bun with mustard and sauerkraut, language doesn't adhere well to geographical boundaries. Wisconsin's brand of English in particular has been "grossly understudied," said Joe Salmons of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures at the University of Wisconsin.

"If you're a linguist, that gives you a really nice job," he said. "Almost nothing has been done on a whole lot of aspects of it."

The Dictionary of American Regional English spans five volumes, thousands of sayings, 50 states, and bits and pieces of dozens of languages. The fifth and final volume of the dictionary will be released soon but it's already showing  some useful results, Houston Hall said.

"You might wonder what all this is good for, besides being fascinating reading," she said. "Someone who had abducted a child left a ransom note with the parents, and in the note was the message: 'Leave $10,000 in cash in the trash can on the devil strip at the corner of 18th and Carlson.'"

A devil strip is the name of the narrow strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb, if you come from a triangular region in southeastern Ohio between Youngstown, Cleveland and Akron. A forensic linguist checked the DARE, and discovered this. A suspect in the case was from Akron. Police questioned him, and he confessed to the kidnapping.

Big changes could happen in Wisconsin and the rest of the upper plains in the coming years, said Tom Purnell, a professor of linguistics from the University of Wisconsin.

"There are a lot of things happening in Wisconsin speech, in terms of the way we sound," he said.

From the east moving west, the trend of similar-sounding vowels (think of the difference between "bag" and "beg" narrowing), the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. From the west coming east, another vowel shift is heading east. The two will collide in the upper plains, including Wisconsin.

And of course, adding to the perfect vowel-shift storm that could hit Wisconsin soon is the natural structure of Wisconsin language. As in: Could you go over by the tree once? The grammar is particularly interesting to linguists like Salmons.

"If you know German, that use of once sounds very much like German," he said.

He shared the story of a student from northern Wisconsin who could not understand the difference.

"She kept saying, 'I don't understand what you mean," he said. "Finally, I said, I don't know how to explain it any better. Is there anything you can tell me about how you don't understand it?"

"She said, 'It's almost like your saying not everybody says that.'"

That, apparently, is what the study's all about.

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