Wisconsin Englishes

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

Perceptions of English: "Dialects," "Accents," and "Standard English"

Please refer to the Introduction and Chapter 6 of Wisconsin Talk for more information about this topic!

As linguists we use terms like dialect, accent, and Standard English with specific meanings. We understand dialects to be systematic variation in sounds, words and phrases associated with some regional, ethnic or social group, while accent refers narrowly to pronunciation associated with some regional, ethic or social group; in other words, your accent is part of your dialect.

Who speaks Standard English?

Individual speech communities decide who speaks Standard English and who doesn’t. 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 of how correct people speak by Michiganders

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 of how correct and pleasant speech is by Alabamians

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.

The main thing we conclude from research in perceptual dialectology is that there is no single consensus about who speaks the most correct of more pleasant English in the United States. In fact, an important issue is whether, when people answer the question who uses the most correct English, they are judging language or are expressing other judgment about the groups of people (such as judgment of 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 present judgment from people of 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).

Judgments by Wisconsinites

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. If you’re interested in how your judgments of Upper Midwestern speech compare to others, check out these samples of surveys designed by Erica Benson to test perceptions about Upper Midwestern speech.

What is Standard English?

Linguists reserve the term ungrammatical for words or phrases that are impossible for a given language (often marking them with an asterisk *), while nonstandard words or phrases are possible but are not socially valued. Consider the following list of sentences, where each sentence is meant to express the same idea (Raimy 2013: 89).

  1. The hunters did not shoot the small deer.
  2. Them hunters didn’t shoot them small deer.
  3. Them hunters didn’t shoot no small deers.
  4. Dem hunters didn’t shoot no small deers.
  5. *Hunters dem didn’t shoot no deers small.
  6. *Hunter the didn’t shoot the deer small.
The first sentence is standard, but from there each sentence becomes less standard, at an some point, the sentence becomes ungrammatical – but not that there is not straight path from standard to ungrammatical in these examples.

Formal Standard English is written and is also the most formal spoken language. A formal standard is identified by specific rules that are prescribed form authoritative sources such as the education system dictionaries and grammars.

Informal Standard English is based on spoken language and not writing. This varieties is defined by how people actually talk and has many different acceptable forms based on location and situation.

Vernacular English is similar to Informal Standard English in that it is based on spoken language. However, Vernacular English is defined in a negative way as having particular unwanted features (e.g., swear words, double negatives, and saying axe for ask are some clear examples of common vernacular English features).

Schools and Standard English

Everyone leans the local vernacular form of language first, and this is the language that kids come to school with. All children arrive with a different form of the informal standard that they have learned form the community they are being raised in (e.g., their family, play group, day-care center, etc.). The formal standard is taught in schools and is normally only learned in schools.

One approach in teaching Standard English to our children (which we advocate) is to incorporate more explicit information bout different varieties of language. We can use judgments speakers make about varieties of English in our educational system as teaching resources for improving the teaching of Standard English. By analyzing differences in language varieties currently used by children in all school systems, we can improve understanding of how Standard English works, increase us of Standard English, and possible decrease prejudice against speakers of nonstandard varieties of English.

References and related publications

Biber, Douglas, Stig Johansson, Geoffrey Leech, and Susan Conrad. 1999. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow, UK: Longman.

Cassidy, Frederic G., and Joan Houston Hall, eds. 1985–2012. The Dictionary of American Regional English. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 2003. The Function of Schools: Subtler and Cruder Methods of Control. In Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schools, eds. Kenneth Saltman and David Gabbard, pp. 25–36. New York: Routledge.

Conzen, Michael P. 1997. The European Settling and Transformation of the Upper Mississippi Valley Lead Mining Region. In Wisconsin Land and Life, eds. Robert C. Ostergren and Thomas R. Vale, pp. 163–96. Madison: University of Wisconsin 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.

Hartley, Laura C. 1999. A View from the West: Perceptions of U.S. Dialects by Oregon Residents. In Handbook of Perceptual Dialectology, vol. 1, ed. Dennis Preston, pp. 315–31. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Huddleston, Rodney, and Geoffrey K. Pullum. 2005. A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Parker, Frank, and Kathryn Riley. 2010. Linguistics for Non-Linguists: A Primer with Exercises, edition 4. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

Preston, Dennis. 1998. They Speak Really Bad English Down South and in New York City. In Language Myths, eds. Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill, pp. 139–49. London: Penguin.

Raimy, Eric. 2013. Standard English: What is it? And what is it good for? In Wisconsin Talk: Linguistic Diversity in the Badger State, eds. Thomas Purnell, Eric Raimy and Joseph Salmons, pp. 82-96. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

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

Wolfram, Walt, and Natalie Schilling-Estes. 2006. American English. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Remlinger, Kathryn, Luanne von Schneidemesser and Joseph Salmons. 2009. Revised Perceptions: Changing dialect awareness in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula. American Speech 84: 177-191. (Special issue on Enregisterment).

Cassidy, Frederic G. 1948. On Collecting American Dialect. American Speech 23: 185-193.

Larmouth, Donald, and Marjorie Remsing. 1993. 'Kentuck' English in Wisconsin's Cutover Region. "Heartland" English: Variation and Transition in the American Midwest, ed. Timothy C. Frazer, pp. 215-228. Tuscaloosa: Univ of Alabama Press.

Remlinger, Kathryn A. 2007. The Intertwined Histories of Identity and Dialect in Michigan's Copper Country. In New perspectives on Michigan's Copper Country, ed. Alison K. Hoagland, Erik Nordberg, and Terry Reynolds, pp. 62-84. Houghton, MI: Quincy Mine Hoist Association.

Remlinger, Kathryn A. 2007. Newfies, Cajuns, Hillbillies, and Yoopers: Gendered Media Representations of Regional Dialects. Linguistica Atlantica, Journal of the Atlantic Provinces Linguistic Association, 26-27: 96-100.

Remlinger, Kathryn A. 2006. What It Means to Be a Yooper: Identity, Language Attitudes and Variation in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. In Topics in Dialectal Variation, eds. Markku Filppula, Marjatta Palander, Juhani Klemola and Esa Penttilä, pp. 125-144. Joensuu, Finland: University of Joensuu Press.

Purnell, Thomas, Eric Raimy and Joseph Salmons. 2009. Defining dialect, perceiving dialect and new dialect formation: Sarah Palin's speech. Journal of English Linguistics 37: 331-355.