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Some beg to differ with linguists

Posted: March 24, 2006


Mike Nichols
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A couple of linguists over in Madison say that we Wisconsinites don't know the difference between "bag" and "beg," "milk" and "melk," "Dan" and "Dawn."

"For newcomers to Wisconsin," they contend in a press release touting something called the Wisconsin Englishes Project, "a humdrum visit to the corner store can turn into a startling cultural experience when, after a purchase, the cashier politely asks: 'Do you wanna beg for that?' "

It is, we are told, "one of the more comical manifestations of the unmistakable Wisconsin accent."

Another being, I guess, a propensity to say, "Huh?"

I have lived in southeastern Wisconsin for 16 years and spent most of the rest of my life either half an hour from our western border or an hour from our southern one.

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With all due respect, I don't think I have ever once had a cashier give me an opportunity to "beg" for anything.

Heck, most of them don't even smile at me.

Similarly, I'm pretty confident that when we Wisconsinites talk about "bagmen," we do not pronounce it "begmen."

We pronounce it "solicitor of campaign contributions."

Then again, maybe I am not the best judge of this sort of thing since I am not a native.

Plus, it is true, I am often accused of listening to no one other than myself.

Suspecting that might be true, I called Scott Pietila, who was born in Waukesha County and works for Milwaukee's Associated Bag Co.

Wisconsinites pronounce the "a" in bag, he confirmed, that same way we pronounce the "a" in drag. His company makes over 3,000 types of bags, it turns out and that's what people call them: "bags."

You want to hear about 3,000 types of "begs" right about now, you'll have to morph into Brett Favre.

The linguists are, in fairness, studying a lot more than "beg" and "bag." They say that Wisconsin is likely the only place in the country where two "highly conflicting linguistic patterns" - the Low-Back Merger from the west and the Northern Cities Shift from the east - are colliding.

Under the Northern Cities Shift, they say, the vowel in words like "cot" sounds more like "cat," as in, I guess, "My back is killing me. I had to sleep on a cat last night."

"Dawn," meanwhile, sounds more like "Dan."

This could be a colossal problem for people like Dawn Nelson, who runs the Washington Island Camping Retreat along with her husband, Dan, and gets a lot of visitors from the Milwaukee area. Luckily, I gather, things are copacetic.

"I am never referred to as Dan," said Dawn. "But my father is Don, so we struggled (with that). I am referred to a lot as Don, but never Dan."

Dawn Washelesky of West Bend told me the same thing. Folks might sometimes call her a "Don," but "Dan"?

"Not ever."

This is not to say that somewhere in Wisconsin there isn't someone singing about the "twilight's last danning," or a bagman wondering why people can't get his name straight.

Joseph Salmons, one of the linguists, told me Friday that they actually make spectrograms, or pictures of sound waves, of Wisconsinites' speech.

They can, as a result, see what we say, and apparently know of what they speak. Or, at least, of what we speak.

Some of the speech patterns they are noticing are just emerging or becoming more distinct, according to Salmons, particularly among the younger set; some just go unnoticed unless you really pay attention.

So listen up. We apparently sound quite odd to the rest of the world.

Either that, or these linguists are half in the beg.

E-mail mnichols@journalsentinel.com or call (262)376-4374.


From the March 25, 2006 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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