Speech differences in Wisconsin being studied

Friday September 01, 2006
Associated Press Writer

MILWAUKEE (AP) 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 University of Wisconsin-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.

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.

One is called the northern cities shift, which is spoken by many from as far east as Upstate New York. In Wisconsin, it 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 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. We also cloak our identity in how we speak,'' he said.

Some people in America's Dairyland pronounce milk as melk.

Purnell believes that is part of the northern cities shift.

But Erica Benson, a University of Wisconsin-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.

The state is also split when it comes to describing carbonated soft drinks as soda or pop. Soda generally is used in eastern Wisconsin but pop is more common west of Madison, Salmons said.

Another unusual aspect of Wisconsinites' vocabulary is using the term bubbler to describe what people in most of the country call a drinking fountain or water fountain, Salmons said.

That stems from marketing here years ago of a drinking fountain with a bubbling valve, Salmons said.

Purnell said there is even disagreement within the state on whether the term applies only to a drinking fountain in which the water constantly bubbles or also applies to one in which the stream of water can be turned off and on.

Purnell and Salmons said more study of spoken language has been done in other parts of the country compared to the Midwest, which prompted them to seek a grant of $2,000 from the Wisconsin Humanities Council that they received to start their study earlier this year.

Forums were held in Milwaukee, Madison and Eau Claire this spring to talk about the subject which drew 180 people, with many staying for an hour or more beyond the scheduled end, Salmons said.

``People love to talk about language,'' Benson said.

The researchers are now preparing to apply for a federal grant to expand their study.

``We increasingly rely on automatic speech recognition devices in our society to interpret what is said,'' Salmons said. ``But it's a moving object. It's a real challenge.''

^ =

On the Internet:

Wisconsin Englishes Project: http://csumc.wisc.edu/WiscEng/index.htm

In the interest of timeliness, this story is fed directly from the Associated Press newswire and may contain occasional typographical errors.



Top News Stories

  • Demonstrators Outside N.D. Courthouse Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., trial, Fargo, North Dakota, kidnapping and rape, convicted, Dru Sjodin, University of North Dakota
  • Couric Debuts On CBS Tonight Katie Couric, CBS Evening News, anchor and managing editor, Amelia Santaniello
  • Police: Teen Shot Over Sports Jersey fatal shooting, sports jersey, 16-year-old, North Minneapolis, Edison High School
  • Death Of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin On Video Entertainment, Steve Irwin, The Crocodile Hunter, stingray, Australia, Croc Hunter
  • Woman Wrongly Accused Of Stealing Gasoline gasoline drive-offs, Choua Thor, Eagan Police Department, gas, credit card receipt