Wisconsin Englishes

Here are a few aspects of Wisconsin English varieties that we are investigating:

Ethnicity and Language

Please refer to Chapter 7 in Wisconsin Talk for more information about this topic!

Speakers use the language of the speech community they grew up in. Additionally, social groups, and specifically 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), the most dominant nonstandard, ethnically affiliated variety of American English is African American English, a distinct and linguistically legitimate variety of American English spoken by thousands of Wisconsinites.

What is (and isn’t) African American English?

African American English is a term identifying 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 (Wolfram 1969). For example, recent research has shown 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, 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 with that of 2010:

African American Population in Wisconsin in 1900 by county

African American population in 1990, 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.

African American Population in 2010 by county

African American population in 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 has led to Milwaukee being 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 difference 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 vocal qualities is morally wrong and not supported by this group of linguists and many others, who research linguistic profiling (Purnell, Idsardi & Baugh 1999) and have served as expert witnesses in cases of educational, employment and housing discrimination (Gordon 2013: 191-216).

References and related publications

Wolfram, Walt. 1969. A Sociolinguistic Description of Detroit Negro Speech. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Purnell, Thomas. 2009. Convergence and Contact in Milwaukee: Evidence from Select African American and White Vowel Space Features. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 28(4): 408–27.

Williams, Robert L. 1975. Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks. St. Louis, MO: Institute of Black Studies.

Baugh, John. 2000. Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dillard, Joey Lee. 1973. Black English: Its History and Usage in the United States. New York: Random House.

Smitherman, Geneva. 1977. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

Smitherman, Geneva. 1994. Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

Baugh, John. 1988. Black Street Speech. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Alim, H. Samy. 2004. You Know My Steez: An Ethnographic and Sociolinguistic Study of Styleshifting in a Black American Speech Community. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Labov, William. 1973. Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press.

Rickford, John. 1999. African American Vernacular English: Features, Evolution,Educational Implications. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Baugh, John. 1999. Out of the Mouths of Slaves: African American Language and Educational Malpractice. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Fought, Carmen. 2002. California Students’ Perceptions of, You Know, Regions and Dialects? In Handbook of Perceptual Dialectology, vol. 2, eds. Daniel Long and Dennis Preston, pp. 113–34. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

McHugh, Kevin. 1987. Black Migration Reversal in the United States. Geographical Review 77(2): 171–82.

Ranney, Joseph. 1995. Looking Further Than the Skin: A History of Wisconsin Civil Rights Law. Wisconsin Lawyer 68(7), July: 20–23, 52–53.

Trotter, Joe William, Jr. 1985. Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915–1945. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Purnell, Thomas, William Idsardi, and John Baugh. 1999. Perceptual and Phonetic Experiments on American English Dialect Identification. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 18 (1): 10–30.

Smith, Tovia. 2001. Linguistic Profiling. Morning Edition, NPR, Sep. 5.

Scharinger, Mathias, Philip Monahan, and William Idsardi. 2011. You had me at ‘Hello’: Rapid Extraction of Dialect Information from Spoken Words. Neuroimage 56 (4): 2329–38.

Purnell, Thomas. 2010. Phonetic detail in the perception of ethnic varieties of US English. In A Reader in Sociophonetics, eds. Dennis Preston and Nancy A. Niedzielski, pp. 289-326. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Purnell, Thomas. 2010. The Vowel Phonology of Urban Southeastern Wisconsin. In AAE Speakers and Their Participation in Local Sound Changes: A Comparative Study, eds. Malcah Yeager-Dror and Erik Thomas, pp. 191–217. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Purnell, Thomas. 2013. Ethnicity and language. In Wisconsin Talk: Linguistic Diversity in the Badger State, eds. Thomas Purnell, Eric Raimy and Joseph Salmons, pp. 97-110. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Gordon, Matthew J. 2013. Labov: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.