Bag or bay-g? Understanding Wisconsin's accent... as best we can
Bubbler Talk receives a lot of submissions asking about the way Milwaukeeans talk: What’s with Milwaukee saying ‘yet’ in place of ‘still’?, Why do people here say ‘New BER-lin,’ instead of ‘New Ber-LIN,’ like the city in Germany?, What’s with the local saying ‘a horse apiece’?
That last question came from Grace Zupancic. She accepted WUWM’s invitation to look further into these lingo-related questions. The Cleveland, OH native moved to Wisconsin four years ago, and says she still can’t quite understand some of the different pronunciations and phrases her new neighbors use.
“One of the biggest things is ‘bag’ or ‘bagel’,” Grace explains, drawing out the A to sound like ‘ayyyy.’
If you hand her a can of Mountain Dew or Pepsi, Grace isn’t sure what she’d call it: pop? Soda? Definitely not ‘coke,’ although she’s heard some of her friends from the South use that term…
“I totally say ‘milk’ – and I hate it when people say ‘melk.’ I cringe!” she laughs.
Grace gets fired up talking about the way people talk. And she’s far from the first to notice these differences.
We took a little field trip around downtown Milwaukee, approaching folks to ask them questions about how they talk. The most excitable pair we met was Sam and Beth, coworkers at the Stone Creek Coffee location in the Grand Avenue Mall.
Grace carried with her a few sheets of paper, covered in some of the words she thought would be most telling of the “Wisconsin accent.”
Here’s how our new friends fared in our little survey…
Even though both Sam and Beth hail from Milwaukee, their verbal preferences differed in some cases. But no matter how they said certain words, they defended their choices staunchly. And most everyone else we talked to got just as heated as these two.
It’s clear people have strong opinions about how they view the “correct” way to say certain words. And even though it bugs Grace, she finds the whole thing fascinating, and a bit endearing.
“I think that Minnesota or Wisconsin sound is so friendly!” she exclaims. “It’s not harsh and fast, like sometimes East Coast can sound -- it’s really pretty. Even though it’s fun to kind of make fun of – especially when there’s movies and TV shows out there that make it a caricature of a voice.”
What sets the 'Wisconsin accent' apart?
How did we end up with this “Wisconsin accent” in the first place? There are a couple of ways to answer that question, according to UW-Milwaukee linguistics professor Garry Davis.
- Language evolves with history
Settlers established the city of Milwaukee with a variety of ethnic influences – German, Polish, Italian, Irish, and many more – and those influences seep into our grammar. Davis gives this example…
“People who grew up in southeastern Wisconsin can usually make some sounds that German has that other Americans speakers of English might not be able to do. Like the ‘sch’ sound in words like ‘Schlitz,’ or ‘schnickelfritz’.”
Davis says as humans, we talk the most like the people we talk the most to.
“Even though we have sort of our preferred speech, we can modify it depending on who we’re talking to,” he explains. “You may not talk to your parish priest exactly the same way you talk to your drinking buddies. We regulate that almost unconsciously.”
- Just plain habit
Sometimes, we can’t help the way we speak, Davis says -- it’s just the way we speak!
“People have different words for different things, that doesn’t make them bad people necessarily,” he says. “[Pronunciations] are fairly natural developments. We do poke fun at people, but there’s really nothing wrong with people who say ‘da Bears’!”
TAKE THE QUIZ: A few years ago, the New York Times developed a 25-question test to determine the taker's personal dialect map. Try your hand at it here!
Speech as Identity
Regional dialect isn’t unique to Wisconsin.
Edward McClelland literally wrote the book on how to speak Midwestern – aptly titled, “How to Speak Midwestern.” The Lansing, MI native says he wrote the book to help build regional pride.
“The Midwest has a reputation for being the bland, colorless middle of the country, and I wanted to point out that there’s as much variety and as much color in Midwestern speech as there is in speech anywhere in the country,” McClelland describes.
In researching the Wisconsin accent, the author found a lot of the same curiosities in verbage that listener Grace Zupancic did during her own experiment -- including how we pronounce our city’s name itself!
“I know Alice Cooper pronounced the name as ‘Mil-e-wau-kay’ -- maybe that was the original pronunciation!” McClelland chuckles.
Which brings us to the biggest question in this whole debate: if we don’t really know whether we’re saying things “correctly,” why does it matter?
McClelland says language is all about identity. And because of that, he says, he hopes regional accents never go away.
“Strong local accents are becoming less common than they used to be,” he explains. “I think there’s become an attitude somehow that a strong regional accent is a mark of provincialism or lack of education somehow. I don’t like hearing that. I would like to see [accents] preserved as local color.”
As for our Bubbler Talk question-asker Grace Zupancic, although it might baffle her, she loves the way she’s grown to speak as a Milwaukee transplant.
“When I come home to Cleveland, my accent gets harder compared to when I’m here,” Grace reflects. “ I feel like I even sort of take on some of those Milwaukee tones!”
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