AP NEWS

Ya hey: Accents, vocabulary, culture make Wisconsin a linguist’s dream

May 6, 2019

Wisconsin is fertile ground for me as a linguist because its rich diversity of languages, dialects and accents makes it a natural laboratory – one of the best in North America.

Linguistics is the scientific study of human language in which researchers try to understand what is common and specific to all languages, the cultural parts of language, how languages change over time and how people learn language.

I’m trained as a phonologist – note that this is not studying the bumps on peoples’ heads, that’s a phrenologist – which means that I study the sounds in language.

Through collaboration with colleagues and students I have been lucky enough to contribute to the study of Native American languages in Wisconsin, such as Menominee and Hocank, the language of the Ho-Chunk nation.

This research helps me answer some of the questions I started with and, more importantly, helps in the preservation and promotion of these languages that are endangered.

The history of immigration into Wisconsin – that brought Hmong, Poles, Germans, Cornish and more – provides insights on how different accents and dialects develop in English and, presumably, other languages.

Again, with collaborators, we have a better understanding of how the beautiful and unique Wisconsin accent (yes, we all have an accent) has been established and grown over the last 60 years (yes, it’s a young one).

I believe our languages are an invaluable resource. Wisconsin harbors a trove of those resources and I am thankful that UW-Madison provides the opportunity for me to deepen our understanding of how language makes us human.