Immigrant Languages of Wisconsin

Immigrants to Wisconsin have spoken many different languages and dialects. In order to understand the potential effects of these immigrant languages on the development of contemporary varieties of Wisconsin English, we need to study the social situation and language use patterns of these immigrant groups and their descendants.

For more specific information on these languages and their populations, see the following:

Older Immigrant Languages of Wisconsin

Please refer to Chapters 2, 3 and 4 in Wisconsin Talk for more information about this topic!

Let’s consider first older immigrant varieties of English, such as the Cornish English dialects from Cornwall, England, that were spoken early on in southwest Wisconsin. This corner of Wisconsin saw a wave of Cornish immigrants between 1830 and 1850, mostly miners interested in the lead depositis to be found there. The following map shows the two towns most of the immigrants came from, Redruth and Camborne, as well as three features of speech charactieric of the Cornish English dialect: thee (or ’ee or ye) for you, loss of initial h- resulting in ’ouse instead of house, and the past tense form catched instead of the irregular form caught.

Origions of settlers of Mineral Point, Wisconsin

Origins of settlers of Mineral Point, Wisconsin, relative to regional language features in Cornwall and southwest England, as discussed in Upton and Widdowson (1996). 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.

Cornish dialect speakers were not the first English speakers in southwest Wisconsin – there were earlier settler from other parts of Britain and from elsewhere in the United States, all bringing various dialects of English with them. However, the Cornish were the first English-speaking group to live in this are permanently in relatively large numbers, and the Cornish dialect was thus more influential on the later speech of the area than other, less well-represented dialects of English, such as Irish English or some kind of American English.

The Cornish immigrants were part of the first big population boom that Wisconsin experienced, with the population of Wisconsin growing by 2,514% between 1836 and 1850. As of 1850, approximately one-third of Wisconsin’s population was foreign born, with immigrants coming primarily from German speaking countries, Scandinavian countries and Great Britain and Ireland (Nesbit 1989, Ostergren 1997).

Members of these ‘older immigrant’ groups were still arriving in the state in 1880, when a wave of ‘new immigrants’ began, drawing more on immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, including Italians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Russians. As shown in the following map, the majority of the state had a foreign-born population of over 15% as of 1900:

Percentage foreign born in 1900 by county in Wisconsin

Data from the 1900 U.S. census. On this map and others that use county data from 1900, Rusk and Menominee counties had not been established. Rusk was founded in 1901. Menominee, estabilshed in 1959, appears in many early maps as the Menominee Reservation. 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.

Many Norwegian who came to Wisconsin took up residence in the western part of the state, as shown by the map below of the distribution of Norwegian immigrants in Wisconsin in 1900:

Percentage born in Norway in Wisconsin 1900

Percentage born in Norway, 1900, 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.

German-speaking immigrants settled mainly in the eastern and north-central portions of the state, as shown by this animated map displaying patterns of German immigrant to Wisconsin from 1870 to 1950, and the following map:

Percentage born in Germany 1900 by county in Wisconsin

Percentage born in Germany, 1900, 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.

Religious institutions often played a role in maintaining use of the older immigrant language in the community. Education was often provided by these religious institutions, with many parochial schools offering instruction in the immigrant language. Immigrant populations also established their own press in their own languages, which allowed them to keep up with events in US and at home in their native tongues.

Locations of foreign language newspapers in Wisconsin in 1900

Locations of select foreign-language weekly newspapers in 1900. Data from Guide to Wisconsin Newspapers, 1833-1957, compiled by Donald E. Oehlerts. The data include only newspapers extant in 1900. 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.

In the early 1900s, these older immigrant languages were still being spoken by immigrants and their descendants, with communities showing a mixture of households that were monolingual in an immigrant language, monolingual in English, or bilingual in English and an immigrant language, as shown by the following map based on a 1910 plat map of Huistisford Township (Dodge County, Wisconsin) from the Wisconsin Historical Society:

Map of Huistisford Wisconsin

Data collected by Miranda Wilkerson. Map produced by Mark Livengood.

To see how household language use changed in Hustisfod from 1910 to 1920, refer to this interactive map (produced by Mark Livengood).

In the mid-1900s, many families continued speaking German at home, even as schools, churches and businesses conducted business more frequently in English. Several parochial schools in rural Wisconsin continued to teach at least part of their curriculum, summer schools or Sunday school in German, in some cases until the 1940s. And the Lutheran churches of Lebanon, Wisconsin continued German-language services up until the 1960s and 1970s (Lucht 2007).

Today we still find these older immigrant communities playing an active role in certain community events – there are still some special religious service conducted in whole or in part in the original immigrant language. For example, as of 2011, there were three German-language Christmas services in eastern Wisconsin (one at Trinity Lutheran Church in the city of Sheboygan, one at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kiel, and one at St. Mark’s Evangelical Church in Watertown). There are even a few immigrant language newspaper still in circulation today, such as the Gwiazda Polarna (Nothern Star), a Polish-language biweekly published in Stevens Point.

The future of these languages as family language is, however, uncertain, as children have stopped learning these languages as home languages and begin learning them instead as “foreign languages” as adults. Consider the case of German, where as of 2000, 42.6% of Wisconsinites claimed “German” as their primary ancestry, but less than 1% reported speaking German at home.

Number of speakers of older immigrant languages in Wisconsin in 2000

Number of speakers of select older immigrant languages in Wisconsin, 2006-8. Data from the American Community Survey 2006-8. 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.

Related websites

Check out the National Folklore Archiving Initiative, which has information about recordings and artifacts of speakers of older immigrant languages in Wisconsin (e.g., German, Norwegian, Swedish).

The NorDiaSyn database and corpus for Norwegian dialect syntax includes recordings of European AND Upper Midwestern Norwegian varieties!

And the project American Languages: Our Nation's Many Voices Online features recordings of English and German dialects from the Upper Midwest (and elsewhere in the USA)!

References and related publications

2012 Miranda Wilkerson & Joseph Salmons. Linguistic Marginalities: Becoming American without Learning English. Journal of Transnational American Studies 4.2.

Wilkerson, Miranda and Joseph Salmons. 2008. "'Good Old Immigrants of Yesteryear' Who Didn't Learn English: Germans in Wisconsin." American Speech 83.3.

Salmons, Joseph. 2002. The shift from German to English, World War I and the German-language press in Wisconsin. In Menschen zwischen zwei Welten: Auswanderung, Ansiedlung, Akkulturation, eds. Walter G. Rödel and Helmut Schmahl, pp. 178-193. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier.

Upton, Clive, and J. D. A. Widdowson. 1996. An Atlas of English Dialects. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Nesbit, Robert C. 1989. Wisconsin: A History. 2nd ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Ostergren, Robert C. 1997. “The Euro-American Settlement of Wisconsin, 1830–1920.” In Wisconsin Land and Life, edited by Robert C. Ostergren and Thomas R. Vale, 137–62. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Lucht, Felecia. 2007. “Language Variation in a German-American Community: A Diachronic Study of the Spectrum of Language Use in Lebanon, Wisconsin.” PhD diss., University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Lucht, Felecia, Benjamin Frey, and Joseph Salmons. 2011. “A Tale of Three Cities: Urban-Rural Asymmetries in Language Shift?” Journal of Germanic Linguistics 23 (4): 347–74.

Lucht, Felecia. 2013. Older immigrant languages. In Wisconsin Talk: Linguistic Diversity in the Badger State, eds. Thomas Purnell, Eric Raimy and Joseph Salmons, pp. 26-36. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Petty, Antje. 2013. Immigrant languages and education. In Wisconsin Talk: Linguistic Diversity in the Badger State, eds. Thomas Purnell, Eric Raimy and Joseph Salmons, pp. 37-57. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.