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Linguists set sights on ‘Skahnsin’ English

March 16, 2006 By Paroma Basu

For newcomers to Wisconsin, a humdrum visit to the corner store can turn into a startling cultural experience when after a purchase, the cashier politely asks: “do you wanna beg for that?”

It’s one of the more comical manifestations of the unmistakable Wisconsin accent. Just as they pronounce “bag” more like “beg,” native Wisconsinites pronounce many words just a little differently. “Milk” can sound like “melk,” for example, while “cot” often comes across as “cat.”

The distinctiveness of spoken English here has now caught the attention of a group of linguists who have together launched the Wisconsin Englishes Project. The initiative, which involves two experts at UW–Madison, aims to explore and understand the unique patterns of Wisconsin’s regional dialects.

Map showing range of dialects

Wisconsin’s distinct English dialect is likely to shift and change under the influence of two dialect patterns that currently flank the western and the southeastern parts of the state. To anticipate some of those changes, six linguists–members of the new ‘Wisconsin Englishes Project’–are planning to hold public forums around the state to delve deeper into Wisconsin speech patterns, vocabulary and pronunciation, as well as explore related factors such as immigration, behavioral and cultural trends.

Map: courtesy Wisconsin Englishes Project

To kick off the project, the six participating researchers will hold three public forums around the state, on March 22 (Milwaukee), March 27 (Eau Claire) and April 1 (Madison). The hope is that the forums – essentially open conversations with the general public – will garner valuable tidbits about regional vocabulary, pronunciations, idioms and ethnic influences on Wisconsin English.

“We are asking what it is that is so linguistically distinct about Wisconsin English,” says Joseph Salmons, a UW–Madison professor of German and a historical linguist who co-directs the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. “As opposed to other dialects in America, Wisconsin English has been grossly understudied.”

The project comes amidst the widespread popular perception that mass media instruments such as the television have slowly homogenized spoken English around the U.S. But that perception is wrong, says Salmons, as studies increasingly show that regional U.S. dialects are not only thriving, but are shifting, evolving and becoming more distinctive all the time.

The dialect trend in Wisconsin is particularly intriguing because the state just happens to lie at the edge of two areas undergoing dramatic linguistic shifts, says Thomas Purnell, a UW–Madison assistant professor of linguistics who specializes in dialects, ethnicity and sound.

“Wisconsin is probably the only place [in the U.S.] where two huge, highly conflicting linguistic patterns are colliding,” says Purnell. One of the patterns, known to linguists as the “Low-back Merger,” is influencing dialects just to the west of Wisconsin, in the region surrounding Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN. Its trademark, Purnell says, is that words like “caught” are increasingly pronounced like “cot.”

Meanwhile, a different pattern known as the “Northern Cities Shift” has been dominating the southeastern reaches of Wisconsin, including Madison. Under this influence, the vowel in words like “cot” sounds more like “cat,” just as the name “Dawn” is increasingly pronounced like “Dan,” while “Dan” sounds more like “Don.”

Because the Lowback Merger and the Northern Cities Shift essentially oppose each other, Salmons and Purnell say they are in just the right place at just the right time to explore how those two patterns are likely to influence Wisconsin English in the future. “There is a huge area in Wisconsin where the dialects can still go one way or another,” says Purnell. “We’re trying to anticipate the potential changes by collecting audio recordings of [native Wisconsinites], and carrying out linguistic analysis over time.”

“The fact that there’s so much new acoustic technology also means that we have new ways of analyzing the sound waves in vowels,” adds Salmons. “So if vowels do show a pattern that is different in Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Eau Claire, what we can ask is: what does this say about acquisition of these sounds?”

Salmons and Purnell says their work can have important implications for how English is taught in schools and for reducing problems of miscommunication. Their research is also likely to give rise to new questions that touch on other influences on dialect, such as behavioral patterns, ethnicity and immigration. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Salmons says.

Sponsored by the Wisconsin Humanities Council, the Wisconsin Englishes Project also involves Greg Iverson, a professor of foreign languages and linguistics at UW-Milwaukee; Erica Benson, assistant professor of English at UW-Eau Claire; Joan Houston Hall, the chief editor of the “Dictionary of American Regional English;” and Jennifer Delahanty, a UW–Madison graduate student who studies German influences on Wisconsin English.

Tags: arts, research