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Linguists invite area residents to discuss
'Skahnsin' English

RELEASED: March 14, 2006

Dr. Erica Benson
Dr. Erica Benson

EAU CLAIRE — When people in Eau Claire say "sorry," does it rhyme with "glory" or with "starry"? Do they celebrate their "golden birthdays" by going canoeing on the "flowage" and playing "sheepshead" by the campfire?

A University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire linguist is asking people in the Chippewa Valley who enjoy thinking and talking about language to share their insights and perceptions about the way people talk in this and other parts of the state.

Assistant professor of English Dr. Erica Benson, along with five other specialists, will host multimedia public discussions in Eau Claire, Milwaukee and Madison to explore how Wisconsinites speak, how our regional English came to be so distinctive and the ways in which it is continuing to change. The research is sponsored by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

The forum in Eau Claire will take place from 7-8:30 p.m. Monday, March 27, at the Plaza Hotel & Suites Conference Center, 1202 W. Clairemont Ave.

The researchers will gather information on vocabulary, pronunciations, grammatical constructions, idioms and ethnic influences. Participants will have the opportunity to interact with the researchers, answer short questionnaires and comment on speech patterns in various cities in and around Wisconsin.

According to these experts, the work they do proves that, contrary to popular belief, the media and the mobility of the American population have not homogenized American English.

And according to Benson, there's much to study in this part of the state.

"Little linguistic research has been done in west-central Wisconsin or the entire state, for that matter," said Benson. "The notable exception is the Dictionary of American Regional English, which surveyed the area more than 35 years ago."

In addition, Wisconsin is an area rich in linguistic diversity and currently lies at the boundary of several ongoing changes in pronunciation and grammar, Benson said. West-central Wisconsin, in particular, is at the crossroads of two major sound changes — the Low Back Vowel Merger moving in from the west, which results in words like "caught" and "cot" being pronounced the same, and the more complicated Northern Cities Shift moving in from the east, which involves changes in the pronunciation of several vowels.

"The lack of recent work coupled with the pronunciation changes under way in neighboring regions makes it exciting to do research in this area," Benson said.

Benson, who joined the UW-Eau Claire faculty in 2003 after completing her doctoral degree at Michigan State University, immediately began involving undergraduate students in this type of research. Her first faculty-student collaborative project at UW-Eau Claire was with a Blugold Fellow, one of the high-achieving freshmen identified to work closely with faculty mentors. The project examined what Eau Claire residents think about the English spoken in and around Wisconsin. Last fall, Benson and her student collaborator, James Hahn of Platteville, gave a presentation on this research at the Midwest American Dialect Society Conference.

In August 2005, Benson began an ongoing research project with a team of undergraduate students interested in studying language variation in Wisconsin, with a focus on west-central Wisconsin. Benson hopes that people will want to learn more about the distinctiveness of Wisconsin English and will want to share what they already know by coming to the forum in Eau Claire.

The other researchers involved in the public discussions are Joan Houston Hall, chief editor of the "Dictionary of American Regional English"; Greg Iverson, foreign languages and linguistics, UW-Milwaukee, who specializes in sounds and language change; Jennifer Delahanty, German, UW-Madison, who is studying German influences on Wisconsin English; Tom Purnell, linguistics, UW-Madison, who investigates sounds, ethnicity and dialect; and Joe Salmons, Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, UW-Madison, a specialist in sounds and language and immigration. Several of these researchers will join Benson at the forum in Eau Claire.

For more information, contact Benson at (715) 836-2431 or bensonej@uwec.edu.

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NW

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