Wisconsin Talk: Linguistic Diversity in the Badger State (University of Wisconsin Press) sports a whimsical cover, whose colorful speech bubbles contain "uff da," "ainna" and other phrases a non-Wisconsinite might confuse with candy brand names. Nevertheless, the book is a serious exploration of our state's linguistic history. It's also an enjoyable introduction to the way Wisconsin speaks, thanks in part to some clever additions from editors Thomas Purnell, Eric Raimy and Joseph Salmons, all of whom are UW professors.
Beginning with a helpful crash course in linguistics terminology, this collection of essays explores Wisconsin-specific words, local linguistic quirks and the state's Hmong- and Spanish-language groups. The text may be a bit dry for some audiences, but the tone is accessible, and the surprising facts and graphics will keep most readers engaged.
As a linguistics geek and new Wisconsinite, I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions of the state's language groups and their history. The first chapter addresses the early spread of native languages and their suppression by white colonialists. The lengths to which white lawmakers went to prevent natives from celebrating or even expressing their cultural identity are sobering, yet modern efforts to preserve native languages are encouraging.
The discussions of early immigrant languages and their use in schools and the media are also fascinating. Did you know that there were 79 German-language newspapers in Wisconsin in 1900, or that in 1890 the state's ethnic populations worked together to outvote the Republican Party, which had just introduced a law defining schools as places of English-only instruction? Antje Petty shares these facts in her chapter, noting that the history of German schools in Wisconsin "refutes the myths that immigrants in the past immediately gave up their native tongues in favor of English and casts doubt on the notion that instruction in languages other than English or bilingual instruction is of lower quality." This insight is relevant for present-day educators and lawmakers responding to a growing Spanish-speaking immigrant population.
Raimy argues that it makes little sense to insist upon "correct" English. He offers a map of the United States that illustrates Michiganders' beliefs about what constitutes "standard English," followed by a map that shows what forms of English Alabamians find the most "pleasant." In doing so, he advocates a science-based view of language rather than an emphasis on what is and isn't "good" English.
Concluding with excellent chapters on the state's growing Hmong- and Spanish-speaking populations, Wisconsin Talk comes full circle, discussing how communities should embrace these new language groups. The authors' passion for Wisconsin's linguistic richness is evident throughout, and readers are likely to come away with a better appreciation for the importance -- and fun -- of language preservation.