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Front Page
Updated 9/5/2006 1:38:57 PM

Regional accents abound in state
Study involves UW-EC research

The Associated Press

MILWAUKEE — 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 here once.”

“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 Midwestern Cultures.

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 evolving.

“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 pronounced varies.

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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