How to Speak Wisconsin Good

Jim Sutton passes along these language tips for the 2007 Highpointers Convention

Prepared for the Highpointers Club
2007 National Konvention
Rothschild, WI
July 27-28 2007

Compiled and Edited by
Jim Sutton, Konvention Host

Welcome to Wonderful Wisconsin for the 2007 Highpointers Konvention. Here’s hoping you have a great time during your visit. The people of Wisconsin are friendly and helpful. However, the specific accent of most Wisconsinites, and some of the terms or expressions they use, may seem a bit difficult to understand. Therefore, this guide should help you get over some of the rough spots and enhance your communication skills. You may not be able to speak like a native, but you’ll be better off than most. Be sure to practice the accent and learn the terms before you arrive! (NOTE: Much of what is presented below is done in good fun with tongue firmly planted in cheek, but it’s basically correct, ya know?)

General Pronunciation Guide: The folks of Wisconsin come from a variety of heritages, but the majority is descended from northern and central European stock. The general accent tends to combine both the German/Scandinavian/Dutch/Polish sound AND the French/Belgian sound in one voice. Therefore, you will hear the somewhat guttural, choppy or staccato pronunciation and speaking rhythm of the northern European influence, but modified by a distinct nasal tonality as well. While this sounds complicated, you should be able to master the basics with just a little effort. As the pronunciation guide below will indicate, the words are spelled the same as elsewhere, but the pronunciation is just a bit (or some time a LOT!) different.

Because of the northern European influence, th’s tend to become d’s, o’s become a’s, and the terminal “g” in “-ing” tends to be dropped. Thus, the four demonstrative pronouns are “dis”, “dat”, “dese” (pronounced “deeze”) and “dose” (pronounced “doze”), and you will hear things like “I’m goin’ home, so I’m gonna [pronounced GOH nah] go ged inta da car now”. Use lots of nasal tone here! However, this is NOT “Fargo” (the movie), so don’t overdo it, okay?

The following terms are grouped into categories for your convenience.

General Usage Terms

There are certain terms which crop up in all conversations; these can add a distinct flavor or “patois” to the English language as used by Wisconsinites. While subtle, these expressions add much to any conversation.

Eh? – A general addition to almost any sentence, allowing the sentence to end in a gentle question form, to which the other conversant can respond in a variety of ways. See also “’n so?” Pronounced like “hay” but without the “h” sound, with a level or rising tone, depending on how strong a response is required to the statement just made.

‘N so? – Used almost interchangeably with “eh?”, but perhaps requiring a more definitive agreement or disagreement on the part of the responder. It is essentially a contraction of the phrase “Isn’t that so?”. Pronounced as a very nasal “en SEW?” with a rising tone.

How’s by you? – A general, but friendly greeting among friends or acquaintances, meaning “How are things going with you these days?”, which is far too long a statement by Wisconsin standards.

Interesting – Wisconsin folks try to be nice and not insult or disparage or embarrass other people, their habits, their fashion sense or their cooking. Therefore, you will almost never hear things like, “That casserole really tastes bad!” However, you WILL hear things like, “Dat venison has got a really interesting flavor to it”, or, ”Dat’s a really interesting blouse you got on dere”. Be advised: this is generally NOT a compliment!

Okay? – Used at the end of sentences similarly to “eh?” or “’n so?”, but usually used when a more forceful agreement or concurrence by the listener is desired or required. Used in statements to reinforce an important point (“You be real careful dere wid dat chain saw, okay?”), or to express some degree of frustration or exasperation, as in, “Johnny, you still didn’t clean out da barn like I asked ya ta do this mornin’, so go do it now, okay?”

One time – A modifying phrase which can mean past, present or even future time events. Used in a variety of contexts and circumstances, but usually refers to a specific action to differentiate it from a regular event or series of occurrences. As in, “I was goin’ up dat hill one time dere when da deer come right over on me! I couldn’t even get a shot off, ya know?”

Ya know? – Used similarly to usage throughout the country, but perhaps this expression started here. Often used as a mild request for agreement about a declaration, as in “Dat new Chevy pickup’s sure got some neat stuff in da cab dere, ya know?” May be used occasionally at the start of a sentence to confirm the listener’s familiarity with some fact, but almost never used in the middle of a sentence. Strong nasal tone required, especially on the “know”.

Getting Around

There are a few things you need to know about traveling in Wisconsin, and some special terms and signage that you may not run across elsewhere. Particularly when asking directions, be alert for certain phrases which may require explanation.

55, 65, etc. – Speed limits. These can be STRICTLY ENFORCED, so watch your driving.

I-51, US-2, WIS-57, US-141 – State and federal highways are designated by numbers, just like everywhere else. No big deal.

AA, AB, Z, WWW – County highways in Wisconsin are designated by letters, not numbers. This may be unique to Wisconsin. At county lines, the same road will typically carry the same letter designation into the next county, but not always, so be alert.

By – This term is used in a unique way in Wisconsin. In most English usage, it means either to go near to a place, or to move past a place. While these meaning are also used in Wisconsin, there is an additional, distinct interpretation of the word. In proper context, it means that you are going TO a place AND you will stop in and visit when you get there. Thus, the sentence “I’m going over by Johnny’s house” means that you are going there and you are also going to play with Johnny as well.

Chicago – Huge city in Illinois, home of the ‘da Bears”, the ugly, degenerate NFL football team most hated by true Packer fans. The name of the city is properly pronounced with a lot of nasal tone, and approximates “shi CAH goh”.

Green Bay – Home of the Packers of the NFL. Incorrect pronunciation of this city’s name will immediately brand you as being from somewhere else than Wisconsin. “Green Bay” is properly pronounced with equal emphasis on BOTH words. It is not pronounced “GREEN bay” or “green BAY”.

Milwaukee – The largest city in Wisconsin, known for beer, tools, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and … beer. For pronunciation, understand that there is no “l” in the name, despite the spelling. The closest approximation phonetically would be “Muh WOK key”.

Ogema – The nearest town to Timms Hill. The friendly folks there are hosting our pancake breakfast. The pronunciation is NOT AT ALL what you would expect, believe me. The proper way to pronounce the town’s name is with a hard G and the accent on the first syllable. Think “OH guh muh”. Yeah, it fooled me, too, fer sure!

On top of – This expression is often used when giving directions. It typically means “beyond”. For example, consider the phrase “Turn left two mile [not “miles”] on top of da church at Tonet”. This means turn left when you get two miles beyond the church (not two miles above it; this ain’t Colorado, ya know?). Pronounced “on TOP pa”, as one word.

Route – The common term used for highways, as in “Route 57” or “”Route I-94”. However, be advised that this term rhymes with “shout”; it does not rhyme with “shoot”.

Shawano – A small town between Wausau and Green Bay. Despite how it is spelled, it only has TWO syllables: “SHAH no”. You need lots of nasal on both syllables, by the way.

Wayside – You may see this sign as you travel down county and other side roads. It means a roadside rest stop, usually consisting of a small parking area, open grass areas and trees, picnic tables, and, sometimes but not always, restrooms and a “bubbler” (drinking fountain). These small park-like areas are usually clean, neat and restful. They are great places to rest, stretch your legs, and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of rural Wisconsin.

Wisconsin – The place where you are at. This name requires a significant nasal input to be pronounced correctly, especially in the second syllable. Speak through your nose on this one, folks. Think: “wiss KAHN sen”. If your nasal cavities resonate, you got it right!

Wisconsinites come from a tradition of hard physical labor, on farms and in factories. Therefore, they eat good, relatively simple food and plenty of it. Milk is typically served with every meal. Despite the high levels of animal fats, beer and other such stuff consumed, and the consequent significant numbers of overweight people, Wisconsinites are still among the healthiest and longest-living in the United States. You figure it out!

Belgian pies – Delicious summer season single-crust pies made with fresh cherries, cranberries or other local ingredients, with a large dollop of cream cheese in the center. Be sure to try one!

Booyah – A thick soup (almost a stew) typically made with chicken, other meats, a variety of vegetables, plus spices and other goodies. Typically served at picnics, church suppers, and other events. Usually made in a large cast iron cauldron or kettle on a supporting rack or barrel over an open fire; it can take 6-12 hours or more of slow cooking to come to full taste. Delicious and very filling! Beer and/or brandy are vital ingredients in any good booyah recipe; not for the booyah itself, but to sustain the food slicers, pot stirrers and fire tenders over the long haul!

Brat (rhymes with “rot”, not with “hat”) – Short for bratwurst, the most popular kind of sausage in Wisconsin. Johnsonville brats are famous throughout the country. Typically served with mustard and sauerkraut. Best when marinated in beer, butter and onions after frying on a barbeque (recipe available on request).

Broasted Chicken – A supper club favorite. This is chicken that is cooked in hot oil in a pressure cooker. The oil and pressure keep the moisture in the chicken, and also crisp up the skin, resulting in a delicious flavor. Not for the faint of heart, if you know what I mean, in a cholesterol sort of way, but really good!

Cheese – Regardless of what you may hear elsewhere (California, Vermont), cheese finds its true essence in Wisconsin. Colby cheese was invented here! Try a 5-year aged extra-sharp cheddar cheese and see for yourself what an incredible taste experience real cheese can be! Be sure to take some back home with you.

Cheese curds – Bite-sized irregular nuggets of (usually) cheddar cheese, typically sold in bags as a snack food. You can tell if a curd is fresh by whether or not it squeaks when you bite into it. A squeak means it’s fresh. Often served as a low-calorie, low cholesterol snack in bars where they are breaded, cooked in hot oil, and served hot. Very tasty!

Friday Fish Fry – If you don’t like fish, don’t go out to eat on Fridays in Wisconsin! Virtually every bar, supper club, and restaurant will feature fried fish (usually perch or walleye, but sometimes bluegill of other panfish as well). If you don’t serve it, you might as well not be open, because everyone will be eating someplace else!

Fry – How you cook a brat or hamburger on a grill. You do NOT “barbeque” them, even though you may cook them on your Weber barbeque. A picnic or event is a “bratwurst fry”; nothing else!

Meals (Names of) – There are basically three meals in Wisconsin: breakfast, dinner and supper.

Breakfast is what you would think it would be; it’s usually pretty big (bacon, eggs cooked in bacon grease, toast, pancakes, potatoes, etc.). We don’t do grits, corn bread, or biscuits and gravy up here, so you southern folk will just have to deal with it.

Dinner is the noon-time meal. It can also be pretty hardy, especially with soup and sandwiches (made, of course, with Miracle Whip).

Supper is the evening meal, and is usually served about 5:15 to 6:00 PM. This is where you get into your significant cuts of beef, pork, chicken, etc., usually served with potatoes and gravy, vegetables (formerly always canned, especially in winter months), plus, of course, bread, butter and dessert. You may also have your casseroles or one-dish (hot-dish) meals, usually containing either Campbell’s Tomato Soup or Cream of Mushroom soup, undiluted, as a major ingredient, with French fried onions sprinkled on top. Jell-o mold with fruit is a common dessert.

Lunch is not a real meal, but instead is any sort of snack or break taken between any of the three regular meals. Like anything else, lunch can also involve a substantial amount of food to “tide you over”.

Miracle Whip (Kraft) – Wisconsin’s answer to Hellman’s Mayonnaise (on the East Coast) or Best Foods Mayonnaise (on the West Coast). Used as a salad dressing, as a replacement for mustard and other condiments in sandwiches, and as a topping for Jell-O. You either like it or hate it; there’s no middle ground. You’ll actually see individual packets of Miracle Whip here just like you would see ketchup or mustard.

Spices – Okay, to tell the truth, spices are not big in Wisconsin, except in spicy sausages. You got your salt and pepper, your celery salt, sage for the turkey, and one or two others, but that’s about it. We’re learning, but it’s a long haul, ya know? Just deal with it, okay?

Supper Club – A Wisconsin original. This is typically a bar that also serves good basic food at very reasonable prices, usually in a separate room adjacent to the bar, rather than in the bar itself. It’s not nearly as fancy (in most cases) as a true restaurant, but the food is typically REALLY GOOD. Expect to get cheese spread, liver paste and bread sticks for appetizers. Steaks and broasted chicken are on almost every menu, as well as fried fish on Friday night. Some supper clubs have evolved into rather fancy establishments (no plastic plates!), but the small town, informal ambience usually remains.

Tailgating – A major Wisconsin cooking and eating social gathering, especially at Green Bay Packer and University of Wisconsin football games. This simple picnic concept has evolved into a major culinary art form here. Elaborate, multi-course menus are prepared on special equipment, including customized, enclosed trailers with large-screen TV, slide-out grills, and side-mounted beer taps to save time when you need a refill. Weather is no deterrent: dress warm and just ignore the snow, and stay warm with a B ‘n’ B, okay?

Drinks and Places to Drink

Wisconsinites of all backgrounds enjoy their alcoholic beverages and the community spirit that goes with it. They like the “three B’s: brandy, beer and booze”.

Bar – The local bar is the social center of nearly every city, town, hamlet and crossroads in the state. If you have to travel more than a mile or two to get a beer, you are probably in the National Forest or out on somebody’s “back forty”. In some locales, you may find three, four or even more bars on the same block, each with its own personality and regular clientele. Nearly everyone has their favorite hangout, where a stop to “hoist a couple” on the way home from work is a time-honored tradition. Shuffle board, bar dice and cribbage add to the fun and conviviality. Many small country bars are actually the converted living rooms of the owners’ homes. Bar food is good, plentiful and cheap, because there is so much competition; especially good for dinner or lunch, but not supper (see above). Equivalent terms include tavern, tap, pub, place (as in “Jake’s Place”), corner (since so many are on intersections), and many other terms.

Beer – Wisconsin’s signature drink (other than milk). In addition to the big megabrewers of the present and the past (Miller’s, Pabst, Blatz, Schlitz, and others), there are dozens of micro- and craft breweries cropping up all over the state. Many homes have extra refrigerators in their basement rec rooms dedicated to holding and dispensing the owner’s favorite beer on tap. Whatever style you want, you’ll find it. Virtually no occasion is complete without a six-pack (or more).

B ‘n’ B – Not what you would expect. This is not the elegant Benedictine and Brandy, but rather a shot of brandy with a beer chaser. A very common order at many local bars.

Brandy – Drink of choice, especially on a cold winter’s night, to warm you right up. Wisconsinites are among the highest per capita consumers of brandy in the US. Christian Brothers is a real favorite.

Mixed Drinks – Wisconsinites love their mixed drinks, which are often priced very inexpensively compared to most parts of the country. Patrons tend to order their favorites with all the complexity and élan of a veteran Starbucks coffee drinker in Seattle. If you don’t know what a “brandy old-fashioned sweet on the rocks with a cherry” is, or a “Seven and Seven”, you need more work. Fortunately, the tests are really fun!

Pop – Term used to cover soft drinks of nearly all kinds, except, perhaps, lemonade. We don’t use terms like “soda”, “soda pop”, or (as in GA), “Coke”. It’s just “pop”. Baumeister orange and root beer are just plain delicious. Ask for a Baumeister orange pop.

Wine – I am happy to report that Wisconsin is slowly crawling out of the dark ages when it comes to wine, but it has been a long, hard struggle, and there is still a long way to go in some quarters. There are still places where the entire “wine list” consists of Gallo burgundy (red), Sebastiani Chenin Blanc (white), and Beringer white zinfandel (rose). That’s all, folks! But new wineries, making more than just fruit wines, are cropping up (pardon the pun), and many restaurants and stores carry an extensive selection of fine wines.

A Few Miscellaneous Words

The material presented so far should pretty well cover most of the basic situations you’ll run into during your time in Wisconsin. However, there are still a few terms and pronunciations which may confuse you. So here they are.

Boat – It means the same here as anywhere else, but in many cases refers specifically to smaller open boats with small outboard motors, used for fishing. The important thing here is to pronounce the term correctly; it is actually a TWO-syllable word. It is pronounced BO (rhymes with sew) wit, or BOW it. The second syllable is very subtle, but distinct.

Bubbler – A drinking fountain. This term is particularly common in eastern Wisconsin. It may have evolved from the practice in public parks of having a small pipe of potable water protrude out of a boulder and run continuously, offering both a cool drink and an appealing and gentle bubbling sound. Identifies you as a real expert on Wisconsinese.

Creek – A small stream. Rhymes with “brick”, not with “cheek”.

Flowage – A term used for an artificial water feature, especially on the Wisconsin River and its tributaries in northern Wisconsin. You would think that the term means a canal or improved channel where the water flows, but you would be wrong! In fact, it means a reservoir behind a dam, where the water DOESN’T flow! Some engineer bureaucrat must have thought up this monstrosity of misrepresentation. I have no idea how this term evolved, but it is an absolute (and totally STUPID) contradiction! ‘Nuff said!

Leinie – Short name for Leinenkugel’s, a popular beer brewed in Chippewa Falls. NEVER go into a bar and order a “Leinenkugel’s”; you’ll be immediately revealed as an “auslander” (foreigner). Ask for a “Leinie”.

Nordern – Local name for the northern pike, a popular and challenging game fish in Wisconsin. They are never called pike, or northern pike, just norderns.

Root – Those things in the ground that hold up trees. Pronunciation of the “oo” is sort of halfway between rhyming with “book” and halfway rhyming with “rut”. Does NOT rhyme with “boot”.

Squall Lines – One or a series of sharp, vicious linear storms that propagates in advance of a passing cold front, especially in hot, humid (“sticky”) weather. These can typically include a strong, sudden increase in wind from a dead calm, with severe gusts; heavy rain; thunder and lightning; and sometimes tornadoes. As the front passes, you will typically get a sudden drop in temperature and a 90-degree wind shift. These things are NASTY! Don’t ignore storm warnings or ominous looking clouds. These can build and explode very rapidly. Get to cover! This is NO JOKE, okay?

Tyme Machine – An automatic teller machine or ATM. Most banks belong to one banking group, and they call their ATM’s “Tyme Machines”, so the specific term has taken on a more generic meaning, like Xerox or Kleenex.

Yupers – Collective noun for the residents of the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan. Derived from “UP-ers”, and rhymes with “supers”. Generally considered to be a slightly pejorative term, with implications of inferior intellectual ability and limited social graces: think North County hillbillies.

* * * * *

So dere ya go, eh? You be sure ta practice dese words and phrases, and in no time flat you’ll be talkin’ jist like one o’ dem folks from over by Shiockton or Pulaski or wherever, okay? I’ll be lookin’ for ya one time over by da brat fry at da Point Brewery on Friday, da 27th. See ya!

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