- Introduction: Talking about language variation
- Ethnicity and language
- Effects of other languages on Wisconsin English
- References & related publications
"Dialects," "Accents", and "Standard"
As linguists we use terms like dialect, accent, and Standard English with specific meanings. We understand dialects as involving systematic variation in sounds, words, and grammar associated with some regional or social group. So, regional dialects include how Southerners pronounce I (for some, like 'aaah'), that they have pronouns people from other regions don't like y'all and say sentences like you might could get there but you used to could do it quicker without blinking. Social dialects include specific ways of speaking among members of any group — ethnic, religious, and so on. (See below on Ethnicity and language.) For us, accent refers just to pronunciation associated with some regional or social group; in other words, your accent is part of your dialect. We'll deal with that below under Sounds.
What is Standard English?
- Formal Standard Englishh is the most formal spoken and written language, used in professional settings; perhaps by doctors, lawyers and teachers or by a politician giving a formal address. It is used in formal written pieces, for example in scholarly journals. A formal standard is identified by specific rules that are prescribed form authoritative sources such as the education system, dictionaries, and grammars. These rules help to make the language more regular across cultural and political boundaries.
- Informal Standard English is based on spoken language and not writing. This variety is defined by how people actually talk and has many different acceptable forms based on location and situation. However, Informal Standard English appears in some writing, such as personal letters, diaries, blogs, and the Twittersphere, for example.
- Vernacular English is similar is also based on spoken language. However, Vernacular English is often defined in a negative way as having particular unwanted features: double negatives like don't have none, saying axe for ask or warsh for wash, are widespread common English features.
When linguists talk about standard, we don’t only look at what rules have been prescribed, we more importantly look at how people actually use language, how they speak and how they write in their everyday lives. For us, something isn’t ungrammatical because a grammar book tells us it is, but rather something is ungrammatical if a native speaker would not utter it. A grammar book might tell you not to split infinitives but Star Trek wouldn't be quite the same if they said to go boldly. And you hear that you shouldn't end sentences with prepositions, but we all normally say things like where did that come from?
Ungrammatical forms are simply not how people talk (often marked with an asterisk *), while nonstandard words or phrases are possible but are not sanctioned in grammar books. Consider the following sentences, where each sentence is meant to express the same idea (Raimy 2013: 89).
- The hunters did not shoot the small deer.
- Dem hunters didn’t shoot no small deers.
- *Hunter the didn’t shoot the deer small.
The first sentence is standard. The second is something people say but isn’t standard. The last one is ungrammatical, not a kind of English that we know of. (Yup, that sentence ends in a preposition … would sound odd to say and maybe to read ‘of which we know’ in this situation.)
Schools and Standard English
Where does the standard language come from? People learn local vernacular forms of language first, and this is the language that children take with them to school. All children arrive with different forms of language they learned from the community they are being raised in (e.g., their family, play group, day-care center, their siblings, and friends, etc.). The formal standard is normally only learned in schools.
One approach in teaching Standard English (which we advocate) is to incorporate explicit information about different varieties of language and use students’ native dialects as a vehicle is useful. Understanding differences in language varieties used by a wide range of children can help decrease prejudice against speakers of nonstandard varieties.
Who speaks Standard English?
Individual speech communities decide who speaks Standard English and who doesn’t. For example, Brits living in London and Americans living in Ohio think of ‘standard’ very differently. There is, in fact, great variability in judgments about who speaks Standard English, as shown by Dennis Preston’s work and the work of other perceptual dialectologists, who study what nonlinguists think about regional differences in language. Check out the different attitudes and perceptions of speech held by English speakers in Michigan vs. Alabama.
Judgments by Michiganders of how correct people speak, with darker colors indicating "more correct," lighter colors indicating "less correct." Adapted from Preston 1998. Purnell, Thomas. WISCONSIN TALK. © 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.
Judgments by Alabamians of how correct and pleasant people speak, with darker colors indicating "more correct" or "more pleasant," and lighter colors indicating "less correct" or "less pleasant." Adapted from Preston 1998. Purnell, Thomas. WISCONSIN TALK. © 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.
We can learn from perceptual dialectology is that there is no consensus about who speaks the most correct or most pleasant English. In fact, an important issue is whether, when people answer these questions, they are judging language or are expressing another judgment about groups of people (such as their education level or cultural similarity).
A more neutral question about language would be: How similar do you think the English spoken in a given area is to your English? To consider what Wisconsinites think, look at the work of Erica Benson (University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire). The following map presents judgments from people from Eau Claire as to how similar the English spoken in different locations in Wisconsin is to the English spoken in Eau Claire, with the scale being from 1 (the same) to 4 (different).
Adapted from maps created by Erica Benson, UW-Eau Claire, for the Wisconsin Folk Linguistics Project. Purnell, Thomas. WISCONSIN TALK. © 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.
According to these results, the English in Milwaukee is the most different from that of Eau Claire while La Crosse’s is the most similar.
Refer to the Introduction and Chapter 6 of Wisconsin Talk for more information about this topic.
Speakers use the language of the speech community they grew up in. Additionally, social groups, and often especially ethnically-affiliated social groups (such as English speakers of Native American descent, Yankee descent, German descent, Mexican descent, etc.), tend to share cultural practices such as dress and language. While many ethnically affiliated speech varieties exist in Wisconsin (and are discussed in other sections of this website and at length in our book), the most widespread and best known ethnically-affiliated variety of American English is African American English, a set of varieties of American English spoken by thousands of Wisconsinites. In the sense of ‘grammaticality’ described above, it is exactly as systematic and legitimate as other varieties and contains complexities that those who don’t speak it typically don’t understand.
What is (and isn’t) African American English?
African American English identifies a speech variety used by speakers – black, white, Hispanic, Italian, whatever – growing up in a geographic area that is predominantly African American. The systematic linguistic rules and variation across varieties of African American English have been studied since the late 1960s (for example, Wolfram 1969). Recent research shows that younger African American English speakers display local features that identify where they come from, such as from Milwaukee as opposed to Chicago or Mississippi, or from the northwest side of Milwaukee as opposed to the suburbs of Waukesha or Wauwatosa (Purnell 2009).
African Americans in Wisconsin
Large numbers of African Americans arrived in Wisconsin during the Great Migration, long after the Civil War and Reconstruction, when African Americans sought jobs in the north. The number of African Americans in Wisconsin has drastically increased since then, as shown by a comparison between the African American population (by county) in 1990 and that of 2010:
African American Population in 1900 by county 2010
African American population in 1990, 2010, by county (Data from the 1900 U.S. census.) Purnell, Thomas. WISCONSIN TALK. © 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.
Housing compacts established in Milwaukee in the mid-1900s for migrating African Americans made Milwaukee one of the most consistently segregated cities to this day, with distinct varieties of African American English developing there:
Distribution of African Americans in Milwaukee County in 2010
Distribution of African Americans in Milwaukee County in 2010, by census tract (Data from the 2010 UW census, table DP-1, “Profile of General Population and Housing Characteristics”). Purnell, Thomas. WISCONSIN TALK. © 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.
Does hearing differences between ‘Black’ and ‘White’ and ‘Chicano’ English make you racist?
The short answer is NO: hearing differences between African American English and other varieties of English isn’t prejudice – our brains are wired to hear differences by groups at a fairly low level of cognitive processing; hearing someone as sounding black or white or affiliated with a certain ethnic group is a normal result of the fact that individuals tend to speak like people they affiliate with, and our brain can recognize these differences between the way that certain groups of people speak.
However, while it’s normal to hear differences in how people of different social groups speak, discriminating on the basis of speech patterns is seriously wrong. Research shows that linguistic profiling is very real, of course (e.g. Purnell, Idsardi & Baugh 1999), and linguists often serve as expert witnesses in cases of educational, employment, and housing discrimination (Gordon 2013: 191-216).
Refer to Chapter 7 in Wisconsin Talk for more information about this topic.
Linguists make a distinction between vowels (sounds characterized with a lot of oral resonance, such as aaaah and eeeeeh) and consonants (those with little resonance, such as p, t, k, s, etc.). Sociolinguistic work on American English has focused mainly on vowels and as a result, we know a fair amount about Wisconsin vowels, which is what we’ll focus on in this section.
Vowel Patterns in Wisconsin
Two major patterns of vowel changes currently underway in American English meet in Wisconsin. The change moving east is where the words caught and cot come to be pronounced essentially the same (as opposed to being distinct).
The change found in the east is where vowels rotate (or replace each other) in words, such that you would say six like sex, sex like sucks, sucks like Saux's, Saux’s like socks, and socks like sax. This replacement of certain vowel sounds by others is called the Northern Cities Shift, and it’s spread from New York as far as Madison.
An Example Data Set
In order to show the variability of vowel pronunciation within Wisconsin, consider the recordings of six individuals recorded by John Westbury in the early 1990s at the University of Wisconsin's X-ray Microbeam Laboratory in Madison.
These six individuals came from two different dialect regions: the North Central region (which includes Minnesota), and the Northern Cities/Inland North region (which spans the crescent below and between the Great Lakes from Madison, WI, to Syracuse and Rochester, NY, excluding some cities like Erie, PA, in between). The map below shows the locations of the subjects, with the white region representing the North Central region, the darker red representing the Upper Midlands region, and the lighter red representing the Northern Cities/Inland North region.
The white star represents Madison, and the star plus the five blue diamonds represent speakers' dialect locales.
The subjects were recorded saying the main vowels of American English sandwiched between a /s/ and /d/ (e.g., said, sid, sayed). Vowels are categorized by linguists in terms of where the main constriction occurs in the mouth, so that the vowel in seed is considered a “high, front” vowel, while the vowel in sod is considered a “low, back” vowel.
Approximating these relative positions on a graph is fairly easy. One simply needs to have a tool such as a software package to calculate the resonances of the digitized sound file. Moreover, we can identify vowels by comparing the lowest three main resonances in the mouth (called formants, and labeled F1 for the lowest formant, F2 for the next one, and so on).
The figure below is a graphic representation of some of the vowels of the six speakers using a psychoacoustic scale (the Bark scale (Z)) that reflects both the linear and logarithmic aspects of the auditory system. Bark values were found by subtracting the first or second formant value from the third, respectively. Subjects are displays by dialect region (North Central vs. the Northern Cities/Inland North).
The top panel represents the three speakers from the North Central region, with the red vowels identifying the speaker closest to Minnesota. The bottom panel represents the three speakers from the Northern Cities region, with the red vowels representing the speaker from Milwaukee in the southeast part of Wisconsin.
These graphs are interesting because they show that for the speaker closest to Minnesota, the caught ~ cot merger is complete: the two vowels are sitting in the same spot. Likewise, this subject has a fairly low vowel in sad, and especially lower and more forward than the vowel in said. In contrast, the subject from Milwaukee has a distinct separation between the vowels in all four words. Yet, the vowels in sad and sid are quite close, with sad well above said (which looks like it is further back in the mouth than sod).
Another important marker of speakers from Wisconsin is the pronunciation of bags rhyming with begs. This shift from /a/ to /e/ is present all over the upper portion of the United States, from the Midwest to western Washington State, and even in the lower portion of Canada. But note that the shift is taking place at different rates in different words, depending on the final consonant (e.g., /g/ vs. /d/). Check out this map showing differences in the pronunciation of bag and bad using univariant and multidimensional symbols to represent vowel differences by locale.
And as an example of how older immigrant populations helped shape Wisconsin English, consider how many speakers in the southeastern and eastern parts of the state, particularly in old German, Polish and Dutch areas, say etch and edge the same (like etch), or almost the same. Such a pattern has its roots in these immigrant languages, which lack a distinction between “voiced” (b, d, g, etc.) and “voiceless” (p, t, k, etc.) consonants at the ends of words. For example, in German, bat ‘he/she offered’ and Bad ‘bath’ sound alike, both pronounced with a final t sound.
See the Introduction of Wisconsin Talk for more information about this topic.
The following list is just a small sample of Wisconsin dialect listed in the Dictionary of American Regional English. (Thanks to Luanne von Schneidemesser from DARE for her help.)
Top left: Store in La Valle, WI boasting fresh meat, deli & bakery.
Top right: Fresh bakery beyond Wisconsin! Photo from Kearney, Nebraska. Photo courtesy of Ikwe Mennen.
Bottom let: Sign board in Madison, Wisconsin; listing bakery as an item offered in the market.
Bottom right: Sign from Woodman’s.
commonly known as: baked goods; that which you buy from a bakery
origin: Wisconsin, mostly in areas that were heavily settled by German immigrants.
distribution: Wisconsin, primarily
details: This is an example of Metaphorical Extension, a linguistic process whereby the meaning of a word is expanded to refer to an idea or object that is like the original referent. Therefore, when a speaker from Wisconsin says that he or she would like to eat some bakery, it means that they are interested in eating that which comes from the bakery (rather than expressing an interest in ingesting parts of the building).
commonly known as: a stew
origin: Belgian, from French bouillon or bouillabaisse. The term came into English roughly around 1905, arguably in Green Bay (See Green Bay Press-Gazette, October 29, 1976).
distribution: Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota
details: Typically, booya does not have a specific recipe, but it is often made in very large quantities, in large kettles at church or community activities.
Brats are everywhere in Wisconsin and they aren’t your Grandmother’s brats anymore. Top left: Brats from Richland Locker, a meat processing facility in Richland Center. You can see that Jalapeno cheese brats can be found directly next to beef bratwursts. The other two pictures are from the meat department at the Richland Center Wal-Mart, where the number of brat varieties available is staggering. Photos courtesy of: Samantha Litty
commonly known as: a fresh pork sausage typically topped with condiments, including sauerkraut.
origin: Originally German, the bratwurst was brought to Wisconsin with German immigrants.
distribution: Mostly German-settled areas of Wisconsin, though the term has spread widely recently.
details: While the term bratwurst (or the shortened form, brat) was known only in German-settled areas as recently as the 1980s, the popularity of the food - and the term - has become widespread due to the success of Johnsonville Brats. The company is based in the town of Johnsonville in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin.
commonly known as: a drinking fountain
distribution: especially frequent in Wisconsin, check out these: Bubblers around Madison
details: Kohler Company, makers of plumbing fixtures, and located in Kohler, Wisconsin, produced a nickel-plated brass self-closing bubbling valve, which was used on many models of drinking fountains beginning in 1914. Check out this advertisement for a Kohler bubbler! In some instances, the terms bubbler and drinking fountain are interchangeable, though many in Wisconsin either maintain a difference between a bubbler and a drinking fountain or adamantly insist on their regional term. This map shows the distribution of bubbler and other words for drinking fountain used throughout the country.
commonly known as: to step in front of someone in a line
origin: Upper Midwest
distribution: Upper Midwest, Canada
details: Other variants include: butt-in (with some people hearing bud-in), barge, push-in, or cut. The individual who steps in front of another person in line is known as a budger, a cutter or a butter.
commonly known as: originally meaning an awkward or stupid person, but has changed to mean Wisconsinite or Green Bay Packers fan, due perhaps to the dairy industry in the state. By extension, it can also refer to the cheese-shaped hats sold at Packers games.
distribution: Typically used by Wisconsinites, but may be used by those outside the state
details: This was originally a pejorative term, but is no longer such.
commonly known as: chalina, charnina, czarina; a type of soup made from duck's blood.
distribution: Primarily Wisconsin, in areas settled by Polish immigrants.
commonly known as: the day on which your age in years matches the day of the month on which you were born (for example, turning 21 on the 21st day of one's birth month).
distribution: primarily Wisconsin
details: This term is entering widespread use via Hallmark's recent incorporation of the golden birthday into their line of birthday cards.
commonly known as: julebokk(e), julebukker(s); a Christmas fool
distribution: Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, in areas settled by Norwegian immigrants
details: Julebukkers are people, typically young people, who dress up in masks and costumes and go visiting neighbors between Christmas and New Year's in search of food and drink.
commonly known as: kermes, kirmes; a community fair or festival, often hosted by a church.
origin: Dutch kermis; Belgian French kermesse, German Kirmes
distribution: primarily Wisconsin
commonly known as: chilbi, kilbi; a festival held near the end of the Summer, at harvest time.
origin: German, a variant related to Kirmes
distribution: Wisconsin, primarily in areas settled by Swiss immigrants.
commonly known as: ludefisk, lukefisk, lutfisk; a dried fish that is soaked in lye in order to prepare it for cooking
origin: Danish, Norwegian, Swedish
distribution: Upper Midwest, primarily Minnesota and Michigan
details: Additional terms taken over into Wisconsin English from Norwegian (and some of these are also in Swedish and Danish) include lefsa (meaning 'flatbread made from potatoes’) and bakkels or sandbakkels or fattigmanns bakkels (meaning ‘a types of cookies or pastry’). Uff da, a term that can be used as an expression of disgust – or of surprise – can be heard in Minnesota and Wisconsin and other places of Norwegian settlement.
commonly known as: paczski, poonchka, poonchkey, punchkey; a filled doughnut
distribution: Areas settled by Polish immigrants, primarily in Michigan and Wisconsin
details: This doughnut is typically filled with jelly, and eaten on the Tuesday before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. This Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, is also regionally known as Fat Tuesday or Paczki Day. Paczki in the news!
commonly known as: an elevated, multi-leveled, often urban structure where cars may be parked.
distribution: Madison, Wisconsin, and other larger cities in Wisconsin; elsewhere in the Upper Midwest
details: Many Wisconsinites will use parking ramp generically for any parking structure, though often times it is used to designate an elevated parking structure. Therefore, the term parking ramp might be used less often in rural areas where elevated parking structures are less common. Further North, Canadian English often uses parkade. Further West, parking structure is more common, and in the Southeast, parking deck is more commonly used to refer to an elevated parking facility. Parking garage is often used to refer to an underground car-parking facility, though this term might also be extended to all parking structures, as shown by the Seinfeld episode 'The Parking Garage,' which first aired on October 30, 1991.
commonly known as: soft drink; any variety of terms relating to carbonated beverages
distribution: Wisconsin is strongly divided, with the eastern part of the state preferring soda and the western part of the state preferring pop, as shown on this map.
details: The use of either pop or soda (or coke) to refer to carbonated beverages varies largely by region, and has generated a good deal of discussion.
In addition to those listed above, here are a few more words from German that have been retained in Wisconsin English varieties (and have in many cases spread widely in the country):
sauerkraut ‘sour cabbage’
coffee klatsch ‘informal social gathering over coffee’
dummkopf ‘stupid person’
pfeffernuss ‘a highly spiced Christmas cookie’
rutschi ‘slide, slip’
sauerbraten ‘a dish of beef marinated in a solution with vinegar’
schnibble ‘a small piece or scrap’
hand cheese ‘cheese formed into balls using one’s hands’
Schafskopf and its translated English form sheepshead are both names for a popular card game in Wisconsin
Please refer to the Introduction and Chapter 5 of Wisconsin Talk for more information about this topic.
In addition to sounds and words, there are also developments in meaning, grammar and patterns of social interaction with language that are connected to Wisconsin's and the Upper Midwest's settlement and bilingual history. When we talk about semantics, we're talking about the meanings of words. Syntax commonly refers to the combination of words into clauses, and clauses into discourse. Certain words always occur in a certain order or in a specific position, while others can vary where they occur in larger discourse. Often times changes in word order or the use of a word with a certain intonation gives the word or whole utterance a new meaning; the study of the ways and contexts in which language is used is referred to as pragmatics.
Wisconsin English varieties have developed in such a way that we see parallels between the ways certain words are used in Wisconsin English and the (older) immigrant languages spoken in the state. Here are a few examples:
The use of once in Wisconsin English, such as in “Stand up once,” does not mean that the act should be performed on one occasion, but rather, the once is used in discourse as a way of softening a request, in the same way that one might say "Please?" or "Won't you?". This particular lexical item is actually a direct translation of a very specific use of a German construction, used to soften a command:
Steh mal auf
Stand once up
In Standard American English, “Steh mal auf” would be translated as “Please stand up” or “Won’t you stand up?”. Additionally, mal has a number of additional meanings, including mathematical ‘times’, as in “Zwei mal drei” (Two times three); to express repetition, “Ich habe das hundertmal gesagt” (I have said that a hundred times); and to mean English once, in the past or one time, as in “Das hab’ ich (ein)mal gedacht” (I thought that once / I used to think that).
Many German immigrants who came to Wisconsin learned English as a second language, and in such concentrated communities and in such high numbers, the English they spoke included many words and phrases borrowed from German. More specifically, because German does not have a different word to be used in different circumstances (i.e. Germans use the same word to mean once, times/multiplied by, one time, and please), German-Americans did not make a distinction between the different applications of what they used to know as a single word, mal. It may be a particularly good candidate for transfer into English because it’s a polite form.
Standard American English makes the distinction between still and yet, where still expresses an ongoing event, but yet expresses an event that has not yet begun. However, in German, there is no distinction, and the same word, noch, is used to express the meanings of both English yet and still. Because German immigrants did not make a distinction in their native language, they did not make a distinction between English still and yet, and when speaking English, they generalized one form for all instances. Because so many German immigrants settled in Wisconsin, speakers of Wisconsin English who were not necessarily German also incorporated this generalization into their normal speech.
Example: I’m almost ready to go on vacation, but I just need to pack yet.
come with/bring with
The question "Are you coming with?" parallels constructions found in a number of different European languages, plus there are similar already existing patterns in English. This use of with without an object (e.g., "Are you coming with us?") appears widespread in the Midwest and beyond today. Many languages, such as German, Dutch, Yiddish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish, use an identical construction (note that mit, mee and med are all cognates (genetically related) to English with:
English: He’s coming along (with us)
WI Eng: He’s coming with
German: Er kommt mit
Dutch: Hij komt mee
Swedish: Han kommer med
Normally expressed in Standard American English as “What kind (of)...” or “Which type (of) ...”, some Wisconsin English speakers use phrases like “What for a computer do you have?” This directly echoes the German construction was für - literally, “what for”. In contrast to the distinct uses of once and yet, the use of "What for..." appears sporadically today.
Like a number of other Wisconsin English constructions, this example shows the salient influence of immigrant languages, like German, on the development of Wisconsin English varieties, as speakers learning English or who were bilingual in both German and English used direct translations of constructions from their mother tongue.
Refer to the Introduction, Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 of Wisconsin Talk for more information about this topic.
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