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American Speech publishes UW-Eau Claire linguistics research

RELEASED: Dec. 21, 2011

Left to right: Jared Balkman, Michael Fox and Dr. Erica Benson.

EAU CLAIRE — A six-year University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire student-faculty research project recently was published in American Speech, a prominent academic journal.

Dr. Erica Benson, associate professor of linguistics and the director of undergraduate studies in the English department, along with Jared Balkman and Michael Fox, UW-Eau Claire alumni, co-authored the article, "The Bag that Scott Bought: The Low Vowels in Northwest Wisconsin," which examines the effects of three major sound changes — affecting the pronunciations of the vowels in "bag," "Scott" and "bought" — occurring in and around Wisconsin. Balkman now lives in Appleton; Fox, a native of Altoona, is currently in a graduate linguistics program at North Carolina State University.

Their work is the result of a collaborative effort that began with Balkman and Benson in fall 2005. They were part of a student-faculty research collaboration project titled "Language Variation and Change in West Central Wisconsin," which focused on a sound change resulting in words like "cot" and "caught" being pronounced the same. This change is found in most areas of the United States west of the Mississippi River, including much of Minnesota and far northwestern Wisconsin.

Balkman's research poster won second place in the arts and humanities division at UW-Eau Claire's Student Research Day in 2006, and he went on to present the project at the national sociolinguistics conference, "New Ways of Analyzing Variation," in November 2006 in Columbus, Ohio. Before Balkman graduated from UW-Eau Claire in spring 2007 with a bachelor of arts degree in mathematics, he had become good friends with Fox, who took great interest in the linguistics project.

During summer 2009, Fox and Benson were awarded a UW-Eau Claire Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates grant titled "Vowel Variation in the Chippewa Valley." In addition to the "cot/caught" merger, they looked at two other sound changes, including one resulting in the vowel in "bag" being pronounced like the vowel in "bait." Fox presented their findings at UW-Eau Claire's Student Research Day, the UW System Symposium for Undergraduate Research and the UW System Posters in the Rotunda event at the state Capitol in spring 2010. Fox graduated from UW-Eau Claire in spring 2011 with a bachelor of arts degree in English.

Fox said the undergraduate research experience was the best part of his studies at UW-Eau Claire, and he noted that working closely with Benson on a project relevant to the current state of knowledge in the field of linguistics gave him the hands-on experience he needed to continue at a higher academic level.

"I really owe a lot to the training and support I received under the guidance of Dr. Benson as well as Jared Balkman, who taught me how he went about doing his project," Fox said.

Balkman noted that, as a mathematics major at UW-Eau Claire, he found the study of linguistics was a way to obtain what he felt was missing from the many math classes he took.

"I think linguistics, and especially sociolinguistics, had the best of both worlds for me: the formal/abstract/problem-solving stuff that I enjoyed about mathematics, as well as a very real, human aspect that math didn't seem to have," Balkman said.

Balkman also found value in learning about the research process.

"I believe I grew more as a student and person through my involvement in this project than in the entirety of my college career," Balkman said. "It's a tremendous opportunity for an undergraduate to be able to work on the same problems that academic professionals are currently addressing. And I don't think I would have had the same opportunity had I gone to another university. But at UW-Eau Claire these opportunities abound."

In spring 2010, Benson, Balkman and Fox began combining data from the various projects into one cohesive research presentation to submit for publication. In November 2010, their research presentation, "Hegel Haggles for a Hawk: Low Vowels on the Move in Eau Claire, Wisconsin," was presented at the American Dialect Society's Midwest region conference in Chicago. Their final paper was submitted to the peer-reviewed American Speech in March.

Benson emphasized that the project was truly a collaborative effort between the three.

"Jared and Michael are among the most intelligent, intellectually curious, self-motivated students I have ever met," Benson said of her former pupils. "I'm very proud of the work they have done. It has been a fantastic experience working with both of them on this project."



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