By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Sep 29, 2004 at 5:49 AM Photography: Neil Kiekhofer of Front Room Photography

Ask some dyed-in-the-wool Milwaukeeans if there's a such thing as a Milwaukee accent, and it's actually possible some of them will say no.

Maybe they'll even say, "Ya, der ain't a M'waukee accent, you've gotta go down by da Sout, once, to hear someone talk like dat."

And, from a linguistic point of view, those Milwaukeeans -- the ones who say 'bubbler,' 'acrosst' and 'ain'a,' -- the ones who speak with that distinct thick nasal intonation -- may be correct, depending on which linguist you ask.

According to Tim Machan, a linguistics professor and chair of the Marquette University department of English, it takes more than some quirky pronunciations to qualify as a full-fledged accent.

"There is what a linguist would call an accent, which is a collection of forms and pronunciations and sentence structure and words that are distinct enough," says Machan. "Then there's the perception of an accent, which is a different beast entirely. It's what people imagine they are saying or imagine others to say, and that can be just as powerful as the reality."

But Bert Vaux, a professor of linguistics at UWM, says most people in Milwaukee do have a distinct accent, which he defines as "as a variety of a language that differs in pronunciation features."

"It may also differ in vocabulary, as the Milwaukee variety does, but this doesn't play a role in the definition," says Vaux.

Vaux and Machan agree that Milwaukee-talk doesn't qualify as a dialect, either.

Says Machan, "From a linguistic point of view, there really isn't a Milwaukee dialect. There are particular words, like 'bubbler' and 'ain'a,' and a handful of other particularities like 'down by.'

"When linguists look at these things, they don't have a hard figure; it's a fluid thing. But (when we) look at language in the United States today, there is essentially one dialect band that goes from Philadelphia west.

"For the most part, people in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Chicago, Denver and even San Francisco would be judged to speak the same dialect," he says.

The differences between Milwaukee and points west just aren't as significant as Australian English or Southern American English, he says.

"(I know it's) a crushing blow to Packers fans who think they speak much differently from Bears fans, because they don't," says Machan.

Again, Vaux disagrees.

"Packers fans actually do speak quite differently than Bears fans, at least if you are comparing Green Bay and Chicago. These differences are all phonological (pronunciation) and lexical (vocabulary), but they are speech differences all the same.

Vaux says the choice of words in Milwaukee adds up to something unique.

"Southeastern Wisconsin is an odd linguistic island," says Vaux. "It says 'soda,' while the rest of the Midwest (except around St. Louis) says 'pop.' It says 'bubbler' while the rest of the Midwest says 'drinking fountain' or 'water fountain.' It says 'freeway' while the rest of the area says 'highway' or 'expressway.' It also fits in with the upper Midwest in using 'ramp' for a 'parking garage.' It pronounces 'bag' as 'baig.' (It does not) diphthongize i, e, o, and u. "

Of course, Machan doesn't deny Milwaukeeans have their own way of speaking.

"I'm not saying that we're identical in speech, but a dialect is an abstraction."

More importantly, he says the most significant reason to study the way Milwaukeeans speak is for its social implications. Academics call this the study of sociolinguistics.

"Language is something we use to define ourselves. In that sense, it can be very important to people to say they have a distinct accent," says Machan. "Yes, there are some differences, but it is more magnified in the mind of the user."

Says Machan, "I think it's really intriguing the interest people have to want their language to be unique. It shows how powerful language is to identify ourselves."

Does dis accent come from acrosst the ocean? Is it German or no?

OK, so linguists are split about the existance of a Milwaukee accent. But there's little doubt that we do talk differently than our friends in Cleveland or Los Angeles.

"The nasal (sound) is the one that eludes me, because it's not in Polish or German. It's in French, but there's a fairly small string of French speakers," says Machan. "I don't know where it comes from, but it's very distinct from Minnesota."

Vaux says what we hear is not exactly nasal.

"This is a common misperception," says Vaux. "For some reason, people without linguistic training perceive varieties of speech other than their own as either 'nasal' or 'sing-songy,' when in fact neither is really true. What people are perceiving as nasality in Milwaukee speech is actually slight differences in tongue position in vowels. What they are perceiving as sing-songiness is actually differences in the rules of intonational structure, which do in fact involve pitch variations, but do not actually involve singing or anything close to that."

{image2} Says Machan, "People have argued connections with the 'once' or the 'hey' or the 'ain'a' in German. The 'ain'a' is what is called a tag question, that you hear a lot of in German. It's reasonable, because you had a huge population of monoglot Germans, who only spoke German, in Milwaukee. People take words or phrases from language and pick them up in another language."

However, some words that Milwaukeeans claim as their own aren't actually unique, says Vaux.

"'Hey,' is used all over the United States. 'Der' for 'there' is also used in many parts of the U.S., especially in (formerly) industrial cities where many immigrants came in speaking languages that did not have our two 'th' sounds (the ones in "the" and "thief). They replaced them with the closest sounds in their own languages, 'd' and 't,' respectively."

Vaux agrees that German and Scandinavia are the likely roots of the Milwaukee intonation.

"It is easy to trace the 'pure,' i.e. non-diphthongized vowels of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota to the German and Scandinavian settlements of those areas, but identifying the roots of Milwaukee speech in particular is difficult," says Vaux. "The 'soda' and 'bubbler' variants (also spoken in parts of New England) are especially suggestive, since they link Milwaukee (to the exclusion of the rest of the middle of the country) with the Northeastern U.S. My guess is there, as has been documented linguistically for St. Louis (which is also a linguistic island), was a wave of influential settlers from New England who came to Milwaukee."

The end of dat accent, once?

As people become less parochial and move from city to city and country to country, will the Milwaukee inflection go away? Machan says yes and no.

"It is certainly the case that in the last 150 years, cities like Milwaukee have become less rural. That does have an impact on language. A lot of the most distinctive regional words are words that are associated with farming life, and they were used there for generations. If you start moving these people into the city, they don't need the words anymore."

However, it's not all about geography, stresses Machan.

"You get a different kind of variation that persists, a kind of social variation. It's upper class, educated speech versus middle class, middle manager, high school education speech, versus very uneducated kind of speech or speech associated with Hispanic Americans or African Americans. I don't think you'll ever erase these differences. (Some of these dialects) transcend regional geography."

Vaux agrees.

"We have certainly been losing grammatical differences within this country in the past 50-100 years, but William Labov at Penn found in a recent large-scale study of American pronunciation that the pronunciation of English in the major cities is actually becoming more different rather than more homogenous."

Oh, you tink I talk funny, hey?

As much as most Milwaukeeans embrace their accents, others don't hear it at all.

Says Vaux, "Humans are generally unaware of many features of their own behavior, including their pronunciation. Many Wisconsonians are shocked when I point out that they say 'baig' for bag, for example, or even something as obvious as the fact that they say 'acrosst' for 'across.'"

He points to a story he recently related to a student of his from Green Bay.

"(I went to) Oneida Casino last week and noted with amusement that they had an enormous sign in front of their parking garage saying 'free parking in ramp for customers,' and she didn't see right away why this is funny -- since 'ramp' is the normal word for a parking garage in her lexicon. If you don't notice that you are doing something out of the ordinary, it is unlikely that you're going to change it."

Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.