UW linguists find dialectic differences

by Doug Feingold
Friday, March 11, 2005

A team of University of Wisconsin linguists recently discovered the dialect of Wisconsin speakers is becoming more distinct as time passes, mirroring a similar trend all over the country.

Their research suggests that language is becoming more recognizable by region as opposed to changing into one uniform American language.

“Regional dialect is where we are going,” linguist researcher Tom Purnell said. “Language is becoming local more and more for identity reasons.”

Purnell worked with fellow UW linguists Joseph Salmons, Jennifer Mercer and Dilara Tepeli to answer the question of how language works.

German immigrants in Wisconsin in the late 1800s were the first people to begin speaking English because of the political environment and negative feelings arising toward Germany, according to Purnell.

These speakers spoke a mixed German and English language and according to Purnell, their children were the first generation to be English speakers.

“Their parents did a good job,” Purnell said.

To study the differences in dialect the linguists began their study in Wisconsin and examined the German influence on the accent of today’s Wisconsin natives, Salmons said.

“People tend to believe when immigrants come and establish communities their language leaves traces,” Salmons said. “We looked to see the influences from German on Wisconsin English, where German was a key language for a long time.”

The linguists researched in Watertown, Wisconsin, where 56 percent of the residents claim German ancestry.

Mercer said she recorded the speech of residents who are 70 and older and the research team then listened to recordings of German speakers recorded in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Lastly, Mercer said they compared the German dialect to a third generation of speakers who were born in the late 1900s.

The linguists compared the recordings by measuring the vowels and consonants of each speaker and listening to the differences that cannot be heard in ordinary conversation.

“Spoken speech has to be boiled down to acoustics,” Purnell said.

After comparing the recordings of the three generations, Salmons said the findings were “weird.”

“[The residents of Watertown] speak like us,” Salmons said. “But the younger speakers are more like Germans.”

Purnell added that instead of continuing the trend toward better English, the third generation of speakers went in a different direction and sounded more like the native German speakers.

“It’s as if the children were not listening to their parents, but listening to their grandparents instead,” Mercer said.

According to Salmon, this trend is happening all over the country, which suggests American dialects are not combining into one uniform dialect. However, Salmon added most of the differences are undetectable.

“Only outsiders tend to pick up [the differences], or media like ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Salmons said.

Purnell noted one reason language is becoming more regionally distinct is the growth in population.

“More separation could be happening for identity purposes,” he said.

The next step in their project is to record more speakers, compare regions to Wisconsin, and find differences amongst groups.

“We expect to find more variation,” Purnell said.