Regional
3:59 pm
Wed September 4, 2013

From Bubblers to Brats, Exploring Wisconsin's Unique Language Landscape

Pickle patch. Bubbler. Tavern belly. Brats.

A bubbler is called a water fountain for most of the rest of the country.
A bubbler is called a water fountain for most of the rest of the country.
Credit joshme17/Flickr

Wisconsinites have regularly employed a colorful and unique vocabulary thanks to multiple waves of immigration from the 1800s through the present.

But there is also incredible diversity in language use in different areas of the state and even within single cities.

A new book written by a collection of linguistic scholars expounds on our state’s history, policy, and culture towards language use. Eric Raimy, professor of English Language and Linguistics at UW Madison, and Thomas Purnell, professor of English at UW Madison, are the co-editors and contributors of Wisconsin Talk: Linguistic Diversity in the Badger State.

Purnell says Wisconsin has a rich cultural and linguistic heritage, resulting in a "particular sort of accent or dialect."

“We can see the hallmarks of the large amounts of European migration here in contemporary dialects of Wisconsin," Raimy says. "One of the most interesting things here is actually the difference between the older immigrants and the newer immigrants."

He says modern Spanish-speaking immigrants switch to English “as quickly as they possibly can, as opposed to the older immigrants that took three, four generations to do so.” 

Purnell says some of that has to do with societal pressures, and that our institutions and cultural outlook are “not as supportive of language maintenance as they were in the past.” 

As migrants transition over to English, the question must be asked: what is standard English?

“The standards are really differentiated by who has the power to decide what they are," Raimy says.

When a community's language deviates from this "standard," it is usually the result of segregation and cultural exclusion, such as with the African-American community, Purnell says. For this reason, Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the country, was one of the scholars’ four primary regions of interest. 

Raimy and Purnell feel it is important for children to learn about linguistic diversity early on in life to break discriminatory cycles and deconstruct cultural assumptions. “I think that’s healthy just to understand that . . . the forms that other people speak are not right or wrong,” Purnell says. 

This form of outreach can even be beneficial to students who do speak a more mainstream form of standard English. “In school, the younger that you can start talking to the kids about this and teaching them about this, the better they can begin to manipulate and use” different types of language, Purnell says.

Purnell and Raimy will be speaking at this year’s Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison, October 17-20.