First, a note on how we came to look at English in Wisconsin. The three of us who started this are not from Wisconsin. We are linguists but we weren’t specialists in English or the study of dialects. Still, we realized pretty fast that the state is incredibly rich linguistically and we just couldn’t resist looking into this. So we began to work with students and communities to understand English in the state and region. Sometimes we’ve used the data we’ve gotten in our areas of specialization — the study of speech sounds and language change — but mostly we’ve been learning together with students and people beyond the University. When we started using the phrase ‘Wisconsin Englishes’, in late 2004 or so, the plural was a chance to emphasize that, even within this medium-sized state with a modest population, there is tremendous linguistic variation — regional and social — and things are changing very fast.  This page introduces you to some things that our group and others have figured out (or haven’t). Currently, we’re working on new maps … stay tuned for those. (And thanks to Lauren Kelly of Lawrence University for help on this page.)

Before moving on, let’s set a benchmark for what Wisconsin English might be. In October 2018, I had the privilege of being on the Morning Show on Wisconsin Public Radio. (This is Joe Salmons writing … I didn’t write most of this page or this site, but this is part I did.) The producer, Laura Pavin, had a brilliant idea: She asked me to write a sentence that she could have folks read that might reveal some Wisconsin features. Here’s what I came up with (hey, it was short notice!):

  • The latest ag report shows strong production, but with the hot weather now, Dawn knows there’s bad news coming today.

We ended up not using the recordings on the show, but they are wonderful examples for our purposes. If you’re from Wisconsin or know anything about English here, think about where you might expect to find some distinctly Wisconsin pronunciations. We’ll dig into these in the ‘Sounds’ section below, but here are the three recordings Laura got (and they are used with permission). Have a listen and think about what you expected and what you hear.

Speaker 1

Speaker 2

Speaker 3


These people are speaking English in ways that you can hear around you in Wisconsin all the time. You won’t find the classic stereotypes here — they don’t pronounce th as d (‘dose ones over dere’) and the long o sounds are far from what you hear in the movie Fargo as Upper Midwestern English (‘ooooh noooo’). But if you know the state, you’ll probably notice some things that make you think ‘yup, that’s Wisconsin’. And just think generally about what you hear; voices and speech convey much more than just region. For example, I hear them as adults (but not elderly), two women and one man, and probably all white.

With that, let’s get down to details. The sections cover variation, sounds, words, social and ethnic variation, the historical rise of Wisconsin English and people’s awareness of it, and the effects of other languages on English. We don’t really talk about regional variation in basic sentence structure. We just don’t know as much about this as we do other areas; we’ve done some exploratory work, but haven’t found much. That’s just one major area where we need research.

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1. Language Variation

Terms like dialectaccent, and Standard English have specific meanings in linguistics. Dialects have their own systematic patterns of sounds, words, and grammar associated with some regional or social group. For example, regional dialects include how Southerners pronounce I (for some speakers, 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. For us, accent refers just to pronunciation associated with some regional or social group; in other words, your accent is part of your dialect.

Turning to Standard English, let’s distinguish two broad kinds of English:

  • Formal Standard English is a kind of spoken and written language used especially in professional settings; perhaps by doctors, lawyers and teachers or politicians in formal settings. It is the norm in formal written pieces, for example in scholarly journals or legal writing. A formal standard is identified by specific rules that are prescribed by authoritative sources such as the education system, dictionaries, and grammars. These rules help to make the language more regular across cultural and political boundaries.
  • Vernacular English reflects richer ways that people actually speak. Vernaculars include lots of features not found in Standard English, like some features that teachers and grammar books tell us to avoid, stigmatized features, such as double negatives like don’t have none, saying axe for ask or warsh for wash. These are all widespread features of vernacular American English. Some things you were probably taught to avoid but likely don’t, like answering the question ‘who did it?’ with ‘it was me’ rather than it was I’, or saying ‘can I leave now?’ rather than ‘may I leave now?’. Most speakers of American English are utterly unclear about some other questions, like whether to say ‘I feel badly about that’ vs. ‘I feel bad about that’. (Many grammar books prescribe the second while a lot of people use the first.)

When we talk about standard, we don’t just look at what rules have been prescribed, but more importantly at how people actually use language, how they speak and write in everyday life. For us, something isn’t ungrammatical because a grammar book tells us it is, but rather if a native speaker would not utter it. A grammar book or style guide might tell you not to split infinitives but Star Trek wouldn’t be quite the same if they said to go boldly. And people may tell you 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).

  1. The hunters did not shoot any deer.
  2. Them hunters didn’t shoot no deer.
  3. *Hunter the not shoot deer.

The first sentence is standard, maybe kind of stiff for spoken English (without a contracted ‘didn’t’). The second is something people say but isn’t standard. The last one is ungrammatical, just not how English works that we know of. (Yup, that sentence ends in a preposition … think about how odd it would sound to say ‘of which we know’ in informal  conversation.)

People learn local vernacular forms first, and it’s the kind of language most children take with them to school. 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, siblings, and friends, etc.). At school, there’s intense focus on the standard. Standard English has been shaped by a long political and social process. In fact, many of the rules you learn in school were invented by grammarians and have nothing to do with how English naturally developed. For example, the case against split infinitives, just mentioned, rests on the claim that you don’t split infinitives in Latin, long a model for how grammar should work. In Latin ‘to go’ is ire, a single word that you cannot split. Similarly, the rule against double negatives was invented based on math and logic, where two negatives do make a positive. In human language, though, two negatives often stress the negative meaning, including in Germanic languages. (‘I didn’t never say that’ is more emphatic than a mere ‘I didn’t say that’ for many speakers.) These and a set of other rules were simply made up by Robert Lowth, a British bishop and Oxford professor of poetry, pictured here. There were long and intense debates about what ‘good’ grammar should be and these fabricated rules made it into that set, displacing historical patterns. If you don’t use double negatives, it’s because you’re ultimately taking Lowth’s word for how English should work. And just as often, there’s an abject failure to realize that these patterns are old … people who complain about contemporary uses of like should read Alexandra D’Arcy’s 2017 book on the subject.

Pine, Robert Edge; Robert Lowth, Bishop of London; New College, University of Oxford; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/robert-lowth-bishop-of-london-222789

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. Understanding differences in language varieties used by a wide range of children can help decrease prejudice against speakers of nonstandard varieties. Children bring a workable language, or more than one, to school with them. There’s a lot of evidence that starting from that base helps them learn new varieties and languages.

Individuals and whole speech communities have strong ideas about who speaks Standard English and who doesn’t and that goes way beyond books and teachers. For example, Londoners and  Ohioans will 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. Look at the different attitudes and perceptions of speech held by English speakers in Michigan vs. Alabama.

Michiganders’s judgments of how correct people speak, with darker colors indicating “more correct,” and lighter colors “less correct.”
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.” Images adapted from Preston 1998 (Purnell, 2013b).

Michiganders and Alabamians largely agree that the Midwest has more ‘correct’ English while Southern English is less correct. Southerners win hands down, though, in terms of sounding pleasant. Kinzler & DeJesus 2013 have some newer work on these regional stereotypes. There is no simple consensus about who speaks the most correct or most pleasant English. The bigger question 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 is this: 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, 2013b)

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. We have some evidence now on how Wisconsinites evaluate certain regional features in terms of urban/rural, old/young and so on. We’ll be posting some of those results as the analysis progresses.

Chapter 6 of Wisconsin Talk gives more information about this topic.

2. Sounds

Now we can return to the recordings from the introduction to this page. At a basic level, linguists distinguish two big sets of sounds, 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). Much work on American English has focused on vowels and we know a fair amount about Wisconsin vowels, but Wisconsin is one place where we’re learning a good bit about consonants.

We’ll talk here about vowels and consonants, but keep in mind that pronunciation can vary in many other ways. One stereotype, for example, is that Southerners talk slower than people in the North. We have evidence from Wisconsin that this is true. (If  you click on the ‘References and Related Publications’ link, the Jacewicz et al. paper from 2009 provides some evidence.) There’s also social and regional variation in stress and intonation — think about people who make statements sound like questions by having rising pitch at the end, what’s called ‘up talk’. We won’t deal with those things here.

Here are those three recordings again:

Speaker 1

Speaker 2

Speaker 3

Vowel Patterns

Two major patterns of vowel changes currently underway in American English meet in Wisconsin. The first change, moving from west to east, is where the words caught and cot come to be pronounced essentially the same. In all three recordings, listen to how the speakers say ‘hot’ and ‘Dawn’. For all three, the vowels are pretty similar and for Speakers 1 and 2, they are pretty much the same, so that they have the system in the second picture below, where two vowels have merged. Listen to just the word ‘Dawn’, clipped out here from Speaker 1, and see if you think you could tell whether she’s saying ‘Don’ or ‘Dawn’:

If you are a merged speaker, you may have no idea that these sound different for many people.

The second change starts with the vowel /æ/, the vowel widely found in American English in bad, ban, bag. Simply put, that vowel is pronounced higher in the mouth, closer to bed, Ben, beg. This change has become a stereotype of Chicago speech and urban areas east of there. In Wisconsin, it’s pretty limited and found mostly in the southeast. Here, Speaker 1 again has a little bit of it in the word bad. In areas east of Wisconsin, this sound changes especially before or n sounds, but not before g. But many Wisconsinites differ  in that this happens before g sounds, but not d sounds. Listen to how Speaker 3 says ag. (This short form for agriculture gets us away from the word most associated with the pronunciation, namely bag.) For many Americans, the word in isolation will sound like egg. You can contrast that with Speaker 2, whose ag does not sound so much like egg.

This particular shift from /a/ to /ɛ/ (as in bed, for many people) or even to /e/ (so that bag rhymes with vague) is present from the Upper Midwest to western Washington State, and in parts of Canada, but not to the east. Some people have this change but emphatically do not rhyme bags and begs … they may sound the same to outsiders, while insiders hear the difference.

The broader set of vowels changed connected to this is found in many cities to the east along the Great Lakes. There, vowels rotate in words, such that you might say six like sex, sex like sucks, sucks like Sauk’s, Sauk’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. (Our evidence shows that not much of the change is left by the time you get to Madison, and even in Chicago, many younger people don’t have this pattern, which is really relatively new.)

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.

The white star represents Madison, and the star plus the five blue diamonds represent speakers’ dialect locales.

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 to the left 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 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.

This is just a little sample of what’s in these recordings but there are a lot more … the pronunciation of the diphthong in words like now might be a good clue to a Wisconsin accent. We haven’t mentioned the long o and e sounds, but they are important as well.

Consonant Patterns

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. This is especially common with z sounds being pronounced like and especially common in eastern Wisconsin, particularly among younger people. If you listen to words in the recordings like shows, knows, there’s and news, you’ll hear variation. This suggests that these speakers are in the beginning stages of the change, but recordings from young people show consistent patterns more like this example from Speaker 1:

As Samantha Litty’s recent dissertation shows, this has deep roots in Wisconsin but it’s stepping to center stage today. She found spellings in letters that point to this pronunciation (tolt for told, etc.) and traced early recordings as well.

While this feature appears to be spreading, other changes have receded in places. None of these three speakers has, as already mentioned, the pattern we call ‘stopping’, where th sounds (we call them interdental fricatives) are pronounced as d (or t). This feature is absolutely alive and well in Wisconsin, but it’s become a stereotype, something many people try to avoid. Still, it is powerfully associated with Wisconsin English, so that Charlie Berens can play with it in his Manitowoc Minute.

Yet other features seem to be popping up across a lot of regions of the country at more or less the same time. For example, the s sound in words beginning with str is changing toward a sh sound. This is a change that many African Americans have adopted early and you can hear it in the word strong in our recordings.

See the Introduction of Wisconsin Talk for more information about this topic.

3. Words

When we talk about regional variation, non-linguists tend to focus on accent (speech sounds) and words. If you ask a large group of Wisconsin residents for examples of Wisconsin English (as we often do), you’ll inevitably get words … bubbler comes up immediately (see below) and the question of pop versus soda is seldom far behind. Traditionally, Wisconsin was clearly divided, with the eastern part of the state preferring soda and the western part of the state preferring pop. Things have changed, though, with soda spreading westward. Even when the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) fieldwork was done in the late 1960s into the early 1970s, things were not as clear as you might expect. In fact, DARE provides two nice maps, comparing their old data with newer survey results, below. We shouldn’t forget that there is much richer variation nationally and you can see a map of a national online survey here. And there’s even a web page dedicated to this topic, with its own map.

Use of pop vs. soda in Wisconsin in 1965-1970 (left) and 2013-2014 (right), courtesy of the Dictionary of American English

The following list are a few examples of Wisconsin words listed in the Dictionary of American Regional English. (And we owe thanks to Luanne von Schneidemesser from DARE for her help.) Some maps of national variation are available from Bert Vaux’s survey, here. If you think that dialect variation is being lost, notice that some of the words here are relatively new — starting with pop and soda above, but including things like ramp. This list gives mostly older terms, often associated with particular immigrant groups and so very limited socially and geographically. We really need good new data on recent words that vary regionally.

Left: Sign board in Madison, Wisconsin; listing bakery as an item offered in the market. Center: Store in La Valle, WI boasting fresh meat, deli & bakery. Top right: Sign from Woodman’s. Bottom right: Fresh bakery beyond Wisconsin! [Photo from Kearney, Nebraska, courtesy of Ikwe Mennen].


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.

Top left: Brats from Richland Locker, a meat processing facility in Richland Center. Bottom left, right: the meat department at the Richland Center Wal-Mart.  [Photos: 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. As some of the pictures on this page indicate, brats are no longer just pork and come in many different flavors now — jalapeño brats were not brought by Germans.


commonly known as: a drinking fountain.
origin: Wisconsin
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.


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 and in many other places.
origin: Wisconsin
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.
origin: Polish
distribution: Primarily Wisconsin, in areas settled by Polish immigrants.

golden birthday

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).
origin: Wisconsin
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.
origin: Norwegian
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.
origin: Polish
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!

(parking) ramp

commonly known as: an elevated, multi-leveled, often urban structure where cars may be parked.
origin: Wisconsin
distribution: Madison and other larger cities in Wisconsin; elsewhere in the Upper Midwest
details: Many Wisconsinites will use parking ramp generically for any parking structure, though it is often 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.

Additional information

In addition to those listed above, here are a few more words from German that have been retained in Wisconsin English varieties (and beyond):

  • borrow ‘lend’
  • dummkopf ‘stupid person’
  • pfannkuchen ‘pancake’
  • pfeffernuss ‘a highly spiced Christmas cookie’
  • rutschi ‘slide, slip’
  • schnibble ‘a small piece or scrap’
  • Schafskopf and its 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 on this topic.

4. Social and Ethnic Variation

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, etc. – 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). (There is an outstanding handbook dedicated to African American Language, Lanehart 2015, where you can learn much more.)

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 (left) and 2010 (right) by county; Data from the 1900 and 2010 U.S. censuses. (Purnell, 2013b)

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. (Purnell, 2013b)

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.

5. Effects of Other Languages on Wisconsin English

Wisconsinites are generally aware that English here is connected to Wisconsin’s and the Upper Midwest’s settlement and bilingual history. That’s probably most obvious to you with regard to words and sounds (see those sections for examples), but also in other ways we use language. Here are a few examples of how some other linguistic patterns seem to have been shaped by immigrant languages.


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 a direct translation of a 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 concentrated communities and 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. (There were historical uses like this in earlier English, but it doesn’t seem likely that Wisconsin usage is directly tied to that.)

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 far 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

what for

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.

6. The Rise of Wisconsin English and Awareness of it

Many people think of dialects as connected to how old people talk and think that dialects are dying out today. You’ve already seen plenty of counter-evidence on those points above. But one of the most surprising things to us is how recent Wisconsin English is. There are two parts to the rise of a new dialect or variety, first when people start to speak in a distinct way and second when people start to be aware of that. With historical recordings, we’ve been able to examine how people in the Upper Midwest spoke going back to speakers born in the mid-19th century. What we’ve found consistently is that the regional features discussed throughout this page are not that old. Yes, ‘stopping’ (dem for them) and saying his like hiss were pronunciations used by people learning English, but they were remarkably slow coming into the English of people who only spoke English, often appearing only in the second half of the 20th century. English speakers and people who eventually learned English came here and are coming here from all over, and that created a huge pool of linguistic variation … people grew up in rural or urban areas hearing accents from the northeastern U.S., the lower Midwest, and British and Irish English, plus English spoken with Polish, Norwegian, Ojibwe and many other accents. Children building their own dialect in such situations hear all that variation and adopt some features but not other ones. It takes several generations before a distinct regional variety can arise, especially in a place like Wisconsin where that was (and is) ongoing immigration.

Awareness of distinct regional speech didn’t lag too far behind in Wisconsin. The earliest example of direct mention of Wisconsin having a distinct accent we’ve found is from a Green Bay newspaper story in 1938, but even there, the mention of Wisconsin English is in comparison to Kentucky English, a well-established variety:

There’s another way of getting a rough idea of when people start talking about something. GoogleNgram lets you search huge numbers of printed books for words or phrases. The limitations are obvious — for example, people can talk about something a long time before it appears in published books — but it’s a handy guide. If we compare Wisconsin to other places, talk about a Wisconsin accent is very recent, like in this comparison to Alabama, an older but historically a somewhat less populated state (see here), and one associated with Southern English.

Alabama accent vs. Wisconsin accent in Ngram Viewer

Even some cities with familiar accents fare better, like Boston:

Wisconsin accent vs. Boston accent in Ngram Viewer

Our neighbor to the west, Minnesota, though, isn’t really all that different. (We’ve added ‘Milwaukee accent’ here to show awareness of accent in the largest city in the state, and a relatively old one; more on that in a minute.)

Minnesota accent vs. Wisconsin accent vs. Milwaukee accent in Ngram Viewer

We were surprised to see just how late this development was, even with the difficulties of this rough-and-ready method. ‘Wisconsin accent’ pops up only occasionally before the 1970s and 1980s and has really only taken off in the last decade or so.

We’ve looked at this from another angle too: Can people hear a Wisconsin accent? In Schuld et al. (2015), we took a set of old recordings (made in the 1950s through about 1970s) and new recordings (made after 2010) from three cities in Wisconsin (Eau Claire, Plymouth, Milwaukee) plus three other places (Boston, western North Carolina and southern California). We played short snippets for people in an online survey and just asked whether the speaker was from Wisconsin. For Boston and western North Carolina, people readily recognized that these were not Wisconsin voices. Southern California got no clear response at all. But for Wisconsin, the only old recording that was identified with Wisconsin was Milwaukee — recall the graphic just above. The new recordings, though, were identified with Wisconsin much more clearly. These recordings, like the three above, did not include any stereotypes or things that we thought would trigger an obvious reaction. The lead author, Danielle Schuld, is from Portage, Wisconsin, and when we were putting the study together, we talked about what we did and didn’t hear in the recordings. Her reaction to the new Wisconsin recordings was: they just sound normal. Since then, other people have said basically the same thing when we ask how they recognize a recording as Wisconsin.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic, and it’s an area where research is relatively easy to do, so expect progress on this front. But the same holds for other kinds of English in the area. The English of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, known as Yooper, has been increasingly investigated, especially by Remlinger, whose book Yooper Talk is a major contribution for understanding sociolinguistics in the region. Rankinen has been doing important work on the vowel system(s) of Yooper.

7. References and Related Publications

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