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That Wisconsin accent ... or is it an eccent?

By MARK JOHNSON
markjohnson@journalsentinel.com
Posted: March 21, 2006

Thomas Purnell, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ran to the office of colleague Joseph Salmons.

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Excited and out of breath, Purnell managed to say, "You won't believe what I just heard."

Purnell had been walking down a hallway behind a couple of female undergrads who were discussing a party that one had been to but the other had not.

"One of them says to the other, 'Eck-tually, it was ax-cellent,' " Purnell explained.

That snippet of overheard conversation - trivial to the untrained ear - demonstrated the forces of linguistic change bearing down on Wisconsin. The unusual vowel sounds are hallmarks of a change coming at us from the Southeast, the so-called Northern Cities Shift in which "aa" and "eh" sounds are being reversed.

This change, however, is moving head-on toward another vowel change coming from the West, the so-called Low-Back Merger. In this second change, words such as caught are being pronounced increasingly like the word cot.

In other words, Wisconsin is at the epicenter of a linguistic collision.

To Salmons, Purnell and others who study such things, the moment of collision offers a rare chance to listen in on the evolution of language.

This week, Purnell and Salmons, the co-director of the university's Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, announced the launch of a new examination of Wisconsin English. Financed in part by a small grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, the project will begin with a series of public forums at which residents will be encouraged to discuss patterns and changes in Wisconsin speech.

"Part of what we're interested in with these events will be a real open discussion. We really want to hear from people about how they see language in Wisconsin and what they perceive the dialect differences across the state to be," Salmons said.

"We can see the trains approaching, and watching the collision can help us learn how languages have changed in the past and how human languages work in general," Purnell said.

Some parts of western Wisconsin, such as Eau Claire, will be caught in the collision, and linguists will watch to see what happens to residents' speech.

The changes in language are becoming especially important now that airlines and other businesses are using automated speech recognition software on their phone systems. If vowel sounds change, the difference can confuse a machine. However, there are ways to make software that can handle these linguistic shifts.

The regional differences in speech also become important when families move to different regions. It's not unusual for children at new schools in new regions to be directed into special speech classes.

Up to now, intense interest has focused on dialects, not in the Midwest, but in other parts of the country, especially the South, New England and Texas, Salmons said. "The Midwest just hasn't been the focus of that kind of attention."

The Wisconsin forums that begin today will include a questionnaire about the distinctive features of the state's English, brief comments from experts working on the project and general discussion. The forums are the first part of this ongoing project.

Experts will be looking at a number of other features of Wisconsin speech in addition to the changes in vowel sounds.

For example, Wisconsin linguists are interested in learning about the word sharky, an expression used to describe when a man has his hair pulled back in a ponytail and someone pulls a section so that the hair sticks up, resembling a shark's fin. Linguists at the Madison-based Dictionary of American Regional English have come across a single example of this word's use in Wisconsin. Salmons and Purnell expect to work closely with the editors at the Dictionary of American Regional English.

Another interesting feature is unusual uses of the word anymore, as in, "Gas is expensive anymore," instead of "Gas isn't cheap anymore."

The examination of Wisconsin English also will look at the different regions of the state that use various terms, such as bubbler for water fountain.


From the March 22, 2006 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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