Do something with language!

I’ve wanted to participate again for a while in Mach was! but I haven’t had the inspiration. This is actually a topic (Sprache) that fascinates me but the perfect topic didn’t hit me. It’s a bit lazy, I suppose, but I thought perhaps some readers (less so Americans than non-Americans) might be interested in Wisconsin dialect.

Wisconsin sits at the crossroads of three American dialect boundaries: Inland Northern (how Hillary Clinton speaks); North Central (Frances Dormand speaks a somewhat dated version of this in Fargo, or if you saw Making of a Murderer, Steven Avery speaks this way); and Midland (in the southwestern part of the state; this dialect doesn’t really affect our speech). Class differences involved — again referencing Making of a Murderer, the judges are speaking one dialect and Steven Avery speaks another, and it would make clear to the Wisconsin audience that Avery is from a poorer, rural part of the state. Additionally, it matters where the primary European settlement in any era came from (Germany, for instance, or Scandinavia, which are the two most prevalent sources of the Wisconsin population, but also other groups like the Scots-Irish). Heavy European migration to Wisconsin began in the 1840s / 1850s. And finally, there are strong generational differences. Most of my grandparents’ generation (and certainly their parents) spoke a European language at home either actively or passively, and / or worshiped or went to school in such a language, which shaped their pronunciation and vocabulary choices. Even though the German defeat in WWI led to the erasure of German language in Wisconsin, those influences are still apparent to a German speaker listening to Wisconsinites talk.

Peculiarities that came from German that you hear people around here saying all the time:

  • Inserting “once” into requests or demands. “Hold still once!” or “If you’re going to the store, bring me some eggs once.” This doesn’t mean “one time,” but is a literal translation of the German particle mal, which is used to soften the tone of imperative statements. Depending on context, it can mean “for a second” or “when you have a chance.”
  • Using “with” at the end of a sentence without an object, as in “Do you want to come with?” This is an adaption of something called a separable prefix verb that is common in German and Dutch, where the prefix of the verb detaches during its conjugation to indicate meaning. Mitkommen (to come along) in German is an infinitive, so here we just tack that separable prefix on to the end of the sentence.
  • Saying “yet” when we mean “still.” This leads to all kinds of confusion. “Are you up yet?” in Wisconsin can mean either “are you still awake?” (German influenced) or “have you gotten up?” (standard English grammar). it has to do with the literal translation of the German adverbs “noch” and “immer noch” and confusion about the differences to how “still” and “yet” work in English. If you’re interested in this problem, there’s more about it here.
  • This is a pronunciation thing — the more rural we are, the less likely we are to pronounce English “th” properly. This is probably because German and the Scandinavian languages lack this sound. (Germans learning English really struggle making this sound at the beginning, too.) Many relatives of mine say “dere” instead of “there,” and so on.
  • Saying “borrow” when we mean “lend” — “Can you borrow me some tools?” This is a literal import from German, where borgen can mean both “borrow” and “lend.”
  • Ending questions with “not” or sometimes “or no”. This follows the German pattern of ending a question with “nicht.”  There’s also a comparable pattern of ending an affirmative sentence with “and so,” which is something I’ve heard a fair amount in Germany (restates an assumption agreement).

There are also a few phrases that are somewhat unique to Wisconsin, but may be found in other places:

  • “Stop and go light” for “traffic light.”
  • “Bubbler” for water fountain.
  • “Brat” for “bratwurst.”
  • “FIB” —  rude expression for people from Illinois.
  • “rummage sale” — what other people call a garage sale or yard sale.

There are also a few things that have disappeared or are disappearing that I think must be related to older German usage. For instance, the verb “visit” to mean “catch up on things with a friend,” i.e., “I called her up and we visited for a while.” There are also archaic expressions that used to be common that we now only use ironically — “How’s by you?” would be one of these. This phrase is common in several German dialects, including Yiddish.

There’s more to say but I see I’ve already missed the deadline. Anyway. Speech is a fascinating thing.

~ by Servetus on September 29, 2019.

35 Responses to “Do something with language!”

  1. […] Servetus Beitrag findet ihr hier. […]


  2. You are still on time and I love this, especially the ‘th’ – I might be sounding similar to some peole from your art of the woods, when I try to say it 😉
    Thanks for participating!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. fascinating indeed! and re: “Ending questions with “not” or sometimes “or no”.” I had a very strict English teacher for some years and he always said things like “no native speaker would end a question with or no” (he himselft always tried to speak in this rather posh British English -what came out was halfway between received pronounciation and someone doing a bad imitation of a posh English person 😉 while you could of course still hear his Austrian accent – very funny in hindsight, while at the time the guy was rather scary) so I would have loved to tell him back then, that native speakers in Wisconsin do indeed use this phrasing (I guess it wouldn’t have done me any good, though) hihihi 😀


    • well, we’re not exactly people everyone’s trying to imitate 🙂 But yeah, my brother in particular says something that sounds like “er no” (emphasos on “no”) quite a bit of the time.


      • That “no” at the end of a question to mean “yes” or “right” is very common with Jewish and perhaps other east coasters people who don’t really have much Yiddish ( or none). You’re coming with me, no?
        Also, in NY, we mostly call a traffic light just a light. “Make a right at the second light”. And just for fun, here in Mexico, tag sales or yard sales are mostly called bazaars, which is what we also call thrift shops. But when I lived in Brooklyn and in parts of Manhattan, we were very accurate and called them stoop sales, because no one on the block had front yards or garages ( mostly brownstones or tenement style buildings.


    • well, reading about your grandfather I guess it’s debateable if my teacher would have called him a native speaker then 😉


  4. Thank you for participating, I like your post. I still struggle with words that start with th and r – like through or throw – they are really hard for me to pronounce.


  5. We say “bubbler” in Australia too!


    • I did not know that! Interesting. The theory here is that it was a brand name at some point long in the past.


  6. Being from the great north woods I can say we might say some of this and some we don’t. I do think that I depends on where the family came from. My dad was born here but not his parents and they where born in 1884. My dad spoke what now I have figured out as either Scottish, Irish or English slang and yes all three (only in America). My dads family had been here for some time just not sure how long. My mom was born in Chicago but spent her younger years going between there and here, thanks to having grandparents here and coming to live here during WWII. Grandma was a mixed bag that had family here since we where a colony and grandpa family was from Poland but would have come from Russia as Poland was not a country at the time they came here.

    We do call them garage or yard sales up here. I think that all of Wisconsin calls them brats. We have shorted it to just stop lights. We have a water fountain, but I do remember them being called bubblers when I was a child. The big one I think is really changing is that my husband and I still call the evening meal supper we both grew up calling it that (there is farmers in all the family but my late MIL) the boys are tending to call it dinner because all their friends do. Dinner in the big meal that would happen in the middle of the day such as Sunday dinner or a holiday meal, otherwise we call it lunch. Never heard anyone from Illinois called that but people from Minnesota called mud ducks and yoppers from the upper peninsula of Michigan.

    The th I have all ways heard unless it was are youngest son with autism. Since he started taking later he misspoke many words to start with. The last one he was unable to speak was th, subbed in a f. So he he would call his brother Arfur not Arthur. The funny thing is no one in the family notice it until speech therapy told us. He finally has the th sound or I think he does.

    I remember the girl I met at basic training from Texas saying she just loved the Wisconsin accent, there was a couple of us from Wisconsin. It is how she said Wisconsin like this WisCONsin. She really put a lot on the con part.


    • Where you is firmly North Central whereas here we’re a bit on the boundary. That supper / dinner thing is huge. Dad and I are occasionally confused about what we’re talking about — I’ve switched to calling the evening meal dinner, but that wasn’t the way we spoke at home originally.

      That f / th substitution is also common in some English / UK dialects, I think.


  7. Thanks, very interesting read for me as I both have a linguistic background and a new passion that is genealogy. I have only recently known about the immigrant stories of Germans going to Wisconsin (some of my side-lines ended up in NY, though).


    • I think over 40% of Wisconsinites still have at least one German ancestor (about twice the rate of US people at large). But there were waves — usually those who ended up in NY were slightly earlier.


  8. Silly, but I had no idea that there were such strong German influences on the dialect in Wisconsin. It all makes perfect sense the way you describe it – and I am intrigued by the “or no” and “and so”. Especially the fact that it still exists nowadays, a long time after the original settlers made their way from Germany (and Scandi) to Wisconsin. Is there a kind of move or attempt at preserving the Wisconsin dialect, btw?


    • Not really. There are supposedly still something like 60,000 native speakers of German here, but they are all very old now. (3/4 of my grandparents grew up speaking German but neither of my parents did and I learned mine at university. At a stretch you could call me a heritage speaker.) There are dialects of German in the US that have been studied intensively (the ones in Texas, for instance), but no one was interested in this one. And the Wisconsin dialect in English is primarily limited to pronunciation and usage, although the pronunciation doesn’t make it unintelligible to others. It will probably gradually be elided into the Inland North. I read something while writing this that said the typical Minnesota speech has also been fading since the 1970s.


  9. Fascinating read! Yes, Dutch people have problems learning “th” as well.
    Would you know a clip on YouTube with a good Wisconsian (??) dialect in it?


  10. Fascinating! I had no idea that German still influences the language in parts of the US! I have recently found evidence of German migration to the US during my “Ahnenforschung”, so far, I found one great-great-uncle who emigrated to Connecticut with his family and I even found some of his descendents on Ancestry. Also, one great-aunt emigrated to New York, but she doesn’t seem to have had any family. I’m now investigation my father’s family and hope to find some emigrants there too.
    I can imagine what FIB stands for, I know the Scottish version (FE) for English people 😉


    • I think it may be broader than this (there may be pronunciation influences as well).

      Back in the 80s, the drinking age was 21 in Illinois and still 18 here — so Illinoisans would cross the border to drink and then get in accidents; they used to call it the “blood border.” In the late 80s the federal government forced the states to uniformly raise the age to 21 (by threatening to withhold federal highway funds) and that was when we started hearing the term. I don’t think that ILlinois was responsible for the change but people talked like it was.


  11. Really an interesting post! My English-speaking relatives on my dad’s side say “dere” instead of “there”, because of the Quebec French pronunciation. They also add it to the end of a sentence. As in “I read that book, there.” Or “I went to the dance, there,” as the French Canadians would add “là” to the end of a sentence.

    Those same relatives, whether it’s the French or Irish influence on the use of words or something unique to that area, repeat words for emphasis, instead of using “very”. So they (or in fact I) might say, “It was cold cold” instead of “It was very cold”.

    The accent is very interesting in that part of Quebec, with a French-Irish twang, which I slip into if I spend any amount of time with them.


  12. Thanks for this interesting read! I really like it when you write something about language. It´s such a fascinating topic. I´ve only a brief remark. Not all Scandinavian languages lack “th”. Icelandic still has the sound and in contrast to English even two letters for it: Þ and ð.


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