— Jennifer Delahanty said it seemed normal to her as she grew up in Eau
Claire to hear sayings such as, “Do you want to come with?” and “Come
“You’re not aware the way you talk is different,” said the UW-Madison
graduate student in German social linguistics. “But when I came to
Madison and had contact with students from other parts of the country,
I realized that it was.”
Delahanty, who is both researcher and subject in a study of Wisconsin
speech that got under way this year, said those sentence structures are
more common in German than English.
It’s just one of many peculiarities in spoken English in the state that
are part of the Wisconsin Englishes Project study headed by Thomas
Purnell, a UW-Madison assistant professor of linguistics, and Joe
Salmons, director of the school’s Center for the Study of Upper
For example, some people in America’s Dairyland pronounce milk as “melk.”
Purnell believes that is part of the northern cities shift, a pattern
of pronunciation spoken by many from as far east as Upstate New York.
But Erica Benson, a UW-Eau Claire assistant English professor who also
is a researcher in the project, said it exists in some parts of the
state where the shift has not been seen and it may just be a relic of
longtime dialects used in those regions.
Although there is a common belief that American speech patterns are
becoming more homogeneous due to the impact of television, Salmons
said, studies have shown that regional U.S. dialects are thriving and
“People make a conscious decision on who to hang out with, dress like and talk like,” he said.
Salmons said he grew up in North Carolina and his wife was from
Wisconsin, and the differences in speech between the two regions was
much in evidence at their wedding reception.
“It was not quite as different as speaking Swahili and Japanese, but
our families had some problem understanding one another,” he said.
Two rather distinct linguistic patterns are used in Wisconsin.
In Wisconsin, the northern cities shift is spoken primarily by people
in about the southeastern third of the state in an area bordered by
Lake Michigan on the east, Manitowoc or Green Bay on the north, to as
far west as the Madison area, Purnell said.
It is typified by changing the vowel in bad, bat, pad, pat to sound more like bed, bet, ped and pet, Salmons said.
The other pattern in Wisconsin is called the low-back merger, which has
moved into the western counties, after starting in Pennsylvania and
migrating along a narrow band as far as California and then heading
back eastward, the researchers say.
That speech pattern is typified by such words as cot and caught being
pronounced the same, as well as Don and Dawn, rot and wrought, sot and
sought and not and naught, Salmons said, although how they are
With those two linguistic patterns headed toward one another, Wisconsin
could become a battleground in which state residents speak one or the
other or a hybrid evolves, Purnell said.
“Wisconsinites have a very strong pride element about their sports
teams, such as the Green Bay Packers and the Wisconsin Badgers. People
get worked up,” he said.
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