Mil talk ee

Milwaukee Magazine - - City Guide - By TOM TOLAN

From go­ing by the store to the un­voiced “s” to aina, the Mil­wau­kee di­alect is def­i­nitely a thing – much of it ow­ing to our city’s out­sized Ger­manic an­ces­try.

If the per­fect speaker of Mil­wau­kee-ese, you might want to lis­ten to Lynn Pl­e­vak.

The life­long South Sider and cur­rent St. Fran­cis res­i­dent uses the whole nine yards of our unique di­alect. She goes by Grandma’s house, not to it. If she re­quests your pres­ence, it’s not just “c’mere,” but “c’mere once.” Like many of us, she drinks from a bub­bler oc­ca­sion­ally. For some­thing fizzier, it’s

soda, not pop. Bak­ery is both a place and what’s sold inside.

But Pl­e­vak also uses the Teu­tonic-tinged pin­na­cle of Mil­wau­kee-ese: aina. It’s what lin­guists call a tag ques­tion, mean­ing “isn’t it so?,” asked to get some­body to agree with your state­ment. “The weather’s nice to­day, aina?” It’s a word that used to be an icon of Mil­wau­kee speech, and like so much of the city’s iden­tity, it has Ger­manic roots – a con­trac­tion of ain’t and ne, a short form of the Ger­man nicht, or not, ac­cord­ing to Wis­con­sin folk­lorist James P. Leary.

Pl­e­vak, 56, in fact says aina hey – an ad­di­tional flour­ish – and es­ti­mates that 80 per­cent of the peo­ple she knows use aina.

That took me by sur­prise, be­cause I spent more than a month search­ing for some­one who uses it, and one ex­pert on Wis­con­sin lan­guage told me aina and other Mil­wau­keeisms were as out­dated as leaded gaso­line.

In 1997, writer Rick Horowitz went look­ing for aina for an ar­ti­cle in this mag­a­zine and couldn’t find it. When I told my friend and Mil­wau­kee his­to­rian John Gurda I was look­ing for it again, two decades later, he said, “I think Mil­wau­kee-ese has pretty much gone the way of the eth­nic pro­le­tariat.” Among the places I struck out were Graingers Pub & Grill at 35th and Loomis in Green­field and Tomato Patch, a bar on the other end of 35th, in the North Mil­wau­kee neigh­bor­hood. With its paint­ings of Dean Martin and other movie stars and its pho­tos of old cars, Ma­zos Ham­burg­ers, on South 27th Street near Ok­la­homa Av­enue, does seem to be a time cap­sule from 1959, when the eth­nic work­ing class still ruled the South Side. While I heard no ainas, I do rec­om­mend the burg­ers.

I fi­nally struck pay­dirt at St. Ann Cen­ter for In­ter­gen­er­a­tional Care on East Mor­gan Av­enue, a day care cen­ter for kids and adults. Pl­e­vak runs the kitchen there. But I won­dered if, like me, she’s kind of wink­ing when she says aina – us­ing it tongue-in-cheek? “No, it just comes out,” she says. “To me, none of this is ac­cent or un-nor­mal; it’s just the way we talk.”

The way we talk, our di­alect, is some­thing we share. It’s some­thing that links us to thou­sands or mil­lions of peo­ple we don’t know and iden­ti­fies us – to our­selves and oth­ers – as in­hab­i­tants of the place we live, or where we’re from. It’s one rea­son we can’t stop watch­ing “Mak­ing a Mur­derer,” with its thick pa­tois of north­east­ern Wis­con­sin; or Fargo and its not-far-from-here okay-thens; and “Man­i­towoc Minute,” full of Char­lie Berens’

real-quick-onces, holy cows and yets that in most places would be stills.

A bout 10 years a go,

Joe Sal­mons was at home in Madi­son, read­ing the morn­ing pa­per with Wis­con­sin Pub­lic Ra­dio on in the back­ground, when a word caught his ear. Sal­mons pays more at­ten­tion than most to the way peo­ple talk. He’s a lin­guis­tics pro­fes­sor at UW-Madi­son, di­rec­tor of the univer­sity’s Cen­ter for the Study of Up­per Mid­west­ern Cul­tures, and one of three edi­tors of Wis­con­sin Talk, a col­lec­tion of es­says on the many eth­nic groups that con­trib­ute to the speech of the state’s res­i­dents. He’d no­ticed that a new pro­nun­ci­a­tion of

bagel was turn­ing up around the state. Where most of us say the word with a long “a,” mak­ing it sound like baygel, some peo­ple had be­gun say­ing it with a short “a,” bag­gle. And that was what Sal­mons heard on the ra­dio, from a new an­nouncer who was host­ing for the first time.

“She said, ‘Morn­ing Edi­tion, brought to you by Bag­gles For­ever,’” Sal­mons re­called, and he told him­self, “Oh my God, I’ve got to record this.” It seemed to be a case of a non­stan­dard pro­nun­ci­a­tion sud­denly go­ing main­stream, and as such it was worth doc­u­ment­ing. He for­got to record the next day’s broad­cast – a Fri­day, and an­other Bag­gles – but was pre­pared the fol­low­ing Mon­day morn­ing. “I’m sit­ting at my com­puter ready to record and I’m lis­ten­ing to it, and she comes on and says ‘Morn­ing Edi­tion, brought to you this morn­ing by Baygels For­ever.’” He bursts out laugh­ing: “Some­body had cor­rected her.”

Bag­gle shows how words are al­ways evolv­ing here – in this case an ex­am­ple of the vowel in bag to be pro­nounced like vague, Sal­mons says. Asked to lay out the ba­sics of the Wis­con­sin di­alect, Sal­mons listed the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of words like bad, had, mad – we say them with an “a” that is harder than it’s pro­nounced else­where: bayud,

sayud, mayud. And some of us have a ten­dency to pro­nounce the “s” at the end of words like “s,” in­stead of the “z” sound in standard English: His may sound more like hiss than hiz. And there’s dem, dere and dose for them, there and those – a stereo­type of Wis­con­sin, and a us­age that Sal­mons says is “clearly re­ced­ing in some ways” but re­mains a ma­jor marker. It owes to im­mi­grant lan­guages such as Ger­man that don’t have a “th” sound, and also ex­plains why we also have a-cou­ple-two-t’ree here. In his 2016 book How to Speak Mid­west­ern, Ed­ward Mc­Clel­land notes that Mid­west­ern­ers in gen­eral also tend to omit vow­els when they talk, as in steak ’n’ ptayta, or, around here, M’wau­kee.

But a di­alect is more than just the way we say words; it’s also what we call things. “When you get be­yond pro­nun­ci­a­tion, things tend to get messier and more vari­able,” Sal­mons says. “But I think stuff like once [as in Lynn Pl­e­vak’s c’mere once], a scis­sors [vs. a pair

of scis­sors] and bub­bler are part of the pack­age – all char­ac­ter­is­tic of east­ern Wis­con­sin more than the rest of the state, though all are found across the state.”

Sal­mons, a na­tive of North Carolina, notes that while the di­alects of the South, Texas and New Eng­land get a lot of at­ten­tion from lin­guists, our neck of the woods is of­ten over­looked. “Aside from peo­ple like the DARE folks,” he says, ref­er­enc­ing the Dic­tionary of Amer­i­can Re­gional English project based at UW-Madi­son, “there has been very lit­tle sys­tem­atic at­ten­tion to the Up­per Mid­west. It turns out that the Up­per Mid­west is more in­ter­est­ing than just about any place in the coun­try, for all sorts of rea­sons.”

Why? For one thing, Wis­con­sin is home to three dif­fer­ent English ac­cents, as de­scribed in How to Speak Mid­west­ern. The In­land North ac­cent (cat sound­ing like cayet; and box sound­ing al­most like bahx, and bag like bayg) is shared across the Great Lakes re­gion from western New York to Madi­son and Green Bay, and is spo­ken by about the south­east­ern third of Wis­con­sin. The North Cen­tral ac­cent (the one ex­ag­ger­ated in Fargo) is spo­ken in north­ern Wis­con­sin, all of Min­nesota and most of the Dako­tas. The south­west­ern cor­ner of Wis­con­sin speaks with an ac­cent called Mid­land, which is spo­ken from Penn­syl­va­nia through Kansas and Ne­braska; one key fea­ture is what Mc­Clel­land calls the in­tru­sive “r” – say­ing worsh for wash, for ex­am­ple.

For an­other thing, di­alect around here is dy­namic. There’s some­thing called a North­ern Cities Vowel Shift, a phe­nom­e­non dis­cov­ered by lin­guists in the 1960s and best ex­em­pli­fied by the “Su­per Fans” skits from “Satur­day Night Live,” who be­sides talk­ing about “da Bears,” pro­nounce Bob as Bahb. It’s part of the In­land North ac­cent, but Sal­mons sees the vowel shift fad­ing in Mil­wau­kee, and even in Chicago. Then there’s what’s called the

cot-caught merger, a ten­dency to pro­nounce both those words (and such words as don and dawn) the same. It’s been sweep­ing across the West for years and more re­cently has been heard in far north­west­ern Wis­con­sin.

What’s now Wis­con­sin’s di­alect, Sal­mons says, is some­thing that evolved over many years. Un­til the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tury, he feels, there was no such thing. The Ger­man-in­flu­enced words and phrases we love about Mil­wau­kee-ese were not com­mon to enough of us. “When you have a new com­mu­nity of English speak­ers form,” Sal­mons says, “it takes sev­eral gen­er­a­tions for a di­alect to sort it­self out. In south­east­ern Wis­con­sin and up Lake Michi­gan, you don’t even have pre­dom­i­nantly English-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ties for gen­er­a­tions. Well into the 20th cen­tury, huge num­bers of peo­ple were speak­ing Pol­ish and Ger­man and Dutch. ... So a real Wis­con­sin ac­cent is new.”

Sal­mons be­lieves pieces of what’s be­come our di­alect de­vel­oped by the 1960s, or per­haps ear­lier. He and two other re­searchers found ev­i­dence of its ex­is­tence in a study that re­quired lis­ten­ers to iden­tify which recorded speak­ers – speak­ing no well-known Wis­con­sin words – were from the Bad­ger State. Many could. “It’s in­sanely dif­fi­cult to say when a fully formed di­alect is re­ally ‘a thing,’” he says. But “when peo­ple can iden­tify speak­ers with­out any ob­vi­ous stereo­types in there, it’s an es­tab­lished di­alect.”

Mil wau kee-ese

may not have enough of its own iden­tity to be a stand­alone di­alect, but it’s an in­ter­est­ing sub­set of Wis­con­sin’s.

I mined it reg­u­larly about 10 years ago while writ­ing for a blog by Jour­nal Sen­tinel copy edi­tors. Ev­ery cou­ple weeks, be­tween my other du­ties at the pa­per, I’d look up a lo­cal word in the Dic­tionary of Amer­i­can Re­gional English and call Luanne von Sch­nei­demesser, a DARE ed­i­tor, and ask her how the word de­rived. Usu­ally it came di­rectly or in­di­rectly from Ger­man, as in the case of aina, by (“I’m go­ing down by Schus­ter’s”) and da bo­du­vum (the both of

them with­out the “th-” sounds that Ger­man and re­lated lan­guages lack).

Sal­mons finds that, though aina and other Ger­man ex­pres­sions are fad­ing out, a num­ber of them still can be found – and some might even be ex­pand­ing, all these years af­ter we were Amer­ica’s Ger­man Athens. For ex­am­ple, a cousin of his wife’s who grew up in Mil­wau­kee im­i­tated Mil­wau­kee women talk­ing about wash­ing their hairs, with the “s” pro­nounced as such (an un­voiced “s,” as lin­guists call it). Both re­fer­ring to hair in the plu­ral and the softer, al­most hiss­ing “s” sound come from the Ger­man lan­guage, he said. Though the plu­ral hairs has pretty much dis­ap­peared, Sal­mons talked to a lin­guis­tics class about the “s” plu­ral sound, and one of his stu­dents – from Muskego, he thought – said, “I think a buddy of mine does that.” She went home and recorded her friends in con­ver­sa­tion, Sal­mons says, and sure enough, “it was just per­va­sive . ... It turns out if you start look­ing pho­net­i­cally at what peo­ple are do­ing, what we hear and what peo­ple are ac­tu­ally say­ing match up very badly.”

Other bits of Mil­wau­kee-ese have been doc­u­mented by his student re­searchers. One found some speak­ers in the Mil­wau­kee area who re­ferred to the thing you cut pa­per with not as a scis­sors – or a pair of scis­sors, as Sal­mons says it – but as a scis­sor, with­out the “s” on the end. Sal­mons’ im­pres­sion is that that’s from Ger­man, too, as scis­sors in that lan­guage is the sin­gu­lar die Schere.

An­other student went home for break and asked his friends and fam­ily how they pro­nounced the name of the big­gest city in the state, the one they were all from. All of the young ones said M’wau­kee, and the older ones gen­er­ally pro­nounced the “il.”

While our di­alect is unique, as­pects of it are found else­where, and some terms within it vary from place to place. Steve Hart­man Keiser, who teaches lin­guis­tics at Mar­quette Univer­sity, wrote a jour­nal ar­ti­cle about the var­i­ous terms for step­ping in front of some­body in line – terms of­ten top of mind with grade school kids. Cut­ting

in line is un­der­stood most places, he says, but other terms are place-specific. In Mil­wau­kee, where his fam­ily has lived for 15 years, the term is skip­ping, but out to­ward Madi­son it changes to butting or

budg­ing. “If you get up to­ward the Twin Cities, it’s solid budg­ing,” he says. His wife comes from cen­tral Ohio, and in Columbus, the term is ditch­ing, or some­times dish­ing.

Hart­man Keiser, an Iowa na­tive, and his wife both grew up in the Mid­land ac­cent area but raised their kids here in the In­land North, and he tells of the kids com­ing home from school in Green­field with the lo­cal ac­cent, pro­nounc­ing bag and drag as bayg and drayg. “It used to drive my wife crazy,” he says. “She’d be like, ‘The kids sound like they’re from Wis­con­sin.’ Break­ing news, your kids are from Wis­con­sin.” Now his daugh­ter is a se­nior in col­lege in In­di­ana, back in the Mid­land ac­cent area, do­ing student teach­ing. Re­cently, she was read­ing a student a list of spell­ing words, and she pro­nounced brag the Mil­wau­kee way, brayg. “The kid wrote b-r-e-g. The kid’s ears were spot-on. They were hear­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent, so she had to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I can say that word dif­fer­ently. Let me try it again.’”

Do you speak like a

Mil­wau­keean? If so, how do you feel about it? I asked those ques­tions out­side Leon’s Frozen Cus­tard, where Jenny and Eric Sobczak and Phil Maier, all of Mil­wau­kee, were en­joy­ing cones on one of the first re­ally warm days in late April. Some of their words sound dis­tinc­tively Wis­con­sin:

No, boat and go with monoph­thon­gal “o”s – pure vowel sounds, not diph­thongs that sound like there’s an­other vowel in there. “I al­ways say hey,” Jenny vol­un­teers.

Mil talk ee

All three are Mil­wau­keeans who have lived in other places, and all three have stood up for the way they talk. The Sobczaks lived for a while in San An­to­nio and were teased about the way they talked. “You’ve got to stick up for it,” says Jenny. “I al­ways gave it back to them: ‘Have you lis­tened to the way you talk?’” Maier lived in North Carolina for a while – “Peo­ple loved the way I said Wisc­ahnsin.”

One rea­son Eric feels proud of Mil­wau­kee-ese: “It’s rec­og­niz­able when you meet some­body else [in an­other place], you can tell they’re from the same lo­ca­tion.”

I tell my stu­dents, know your di­alect. Love your di­alect. Be proud of it.

— Steve Hart­man Keiser, Mar­quette Univer­sity lin­guist

Hart­man Keiser is a lover of lan­guage. He speaks English, French and some Penn­syl­va­nia Ger­man, and has stud­ied Chi­nese, Ara­bic, Swahili and even Xhosa, a click lan­guage of south­ern Africa. His field of lin­guis­tics ex­per­tise is Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch, and he’s be­gin­ning to study Na­tive Amer­i­can lan­guages of Wis­con­sin.

“I tell my stu­dents, know your di­alect. Love your di­alect. Be proud of it. It’s part of who you are, be­cause re­ally there’s very lit­tle that is tied into, wo­ven into our sense of iden­tity, [more] than our voice,” he says. “As soon as we do this amaz­ing thing and open our mouths and let the breath flow and we start mak­ing noises with our body, lit­er­ally, there’s this very unique sound, that this is the sound I pro­duce so you rec­og­nize me as an in­di­vid­ual, but at the same time, you find out all sorts of things about me.

“It’s your re­spon­si­bil­ity to love your di­alect and to use it, be­cause it’s both who you are and where you’re from and it’s its own struc­tured, rule-gov­erned lan­guage va­ri­ety.” TOM TOLAN IS THE MAG­A­ZINE’S MAN­AG­ING ED­I­TOR AND A MIL­WAU­KEE-ESE EN­THU­SI­AST WHO WROTE THE APRIL 2017 FEA­TURE “TALK RA­DIO.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.