Minnesota vs. Wisconsin: the dialect debate

Students rapidly gather between classes for a quick thirst quencher at UW-Eau Claire. Some go to vending machines, while others opt for water. The only problem is, the students seem to give their beverages different titles here.

Even though Eau Claire is located in Wisconsin, in terms of the university, the student body is clearly divided. Being in Wisconsin, but only 70 miles to Minnesota, gives the campus a mix of vocabulary.

Specific phrases and words conflict between these two states and can create conflicts between students. Is it a bubbler or a water fountain? Is it pop or soda? Is it duck, duck, goose or duck, duck, grey duck? Is it a hot dish or a casserole?

Bert Vaux is a professor at UW-Milwaukee, but prior to that he was a professor at Harvard University. During that time, he led a nationwide study concerning dialect with three students, Britt Bolen, Scott Golder and Rebecca Starr.

“There are significant differences when comparing eastern and western Wisconsin,” Vaux said.

Among his findings was 65 percent of Minnesotans say “drinking fountain,” while 54 percent of Wisconsinites say “bubbler.” Also, an overwhelming 80 percent of Minnesota natives say “pop,” while 55 percent of Wisconsin residents say “soda.”

Senior Drew Grunseth is from Wisconsin and said he won’t be changing his vocabulary any time soon.

“My reaction was more like, ‘oh, that’s weird.’ As much as Minnesotan words make sense, I’m still gonna use mine,” he said. “It’s just natural because that’s what I grew up with.”

Another difference to note is Minnesotans’ preference for saying fireflies, as opposed to Wisconsinites, as natives use firefly and lightning bug interchangeably.

While many Minnesotans may find the term bubbler foreign and strange, Wisconsinites have used it for nearly a century. Angela Miller, an archivist for the Kohler Company in Kohler, explained its origin. As the term Kleenex is a brand name and also used for any tissue, Kohler Company coined the brand name bubbler in 1914 for its water fountain.

“It was called a bubbler because the water bubbled out,” Miller said.

The Harvard research team mapped out the nation’s different terms for water dispensers in schools. A 61-percent majority uses water fountain, roughly one-third uses drinking fountain and 4 percent use bubbler.

The two key regions using bubbler, according to the survey, are Wisconsin and parts of New England. Both water fountain and drinking fountain are spread nationwide in no correlating pattern.

In the pop versus soda debate, a survey of data was compiled in 2002 reflecting the nation’s different terms for a carbonated soft drink.

The data were compiled by Allen McCracken and mapped out by Matthew Campbell and Greg Plumb. The map shows that in California, Missouri, New England and Wisconsin, the preferred word is soda. Much of the Midwest, including Minnesota, prefers the term pop, while the South uses the word coke.

When trying to determine the reason for this discrepancy, Plumb said, “I’d be speculating, but these areas seem to suggest high German populations, as well as large brewing cities.”

He added Wisconsin is weird because it’s split right down the middle.

McCracken is working on compiling a more current string of data to compare to the previous one.

Plumb said they’ll be able to see short-term differences in the evolution of pop and soda.

“I’m curious to see how well the data holds,” he said.

Vaux offered other explanations of how differences evolved.

“One important aspect is the immigration patterns,” he said. “Minnesota is heavily Scandinavian, while Wisconsin is Slavic.”

While many ideas cross the border, the cultural separation exists, creating notable linguistic differences, Vaux said.

Some phrases and words are evolving and being created, he said. Among those he is researching are “whipping shitties,” used by Minnesotans to refer to doing doughnuts with their cars, as well as the spreading trend of “fish fry.”

Vaux said this linguistic and cultural boundary is partly created by sports, specifically football’s Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers.

It may be hard to relate the Minnesota and Wisconsin sport rivalries to that of dialect and language, but some students have had heated arguments over such trivialities.

“I’ve gotten into these debates before, and pop and soda is a big one, but bubbler is another pretty big one,” senior Becky Wurzer said. “It’s all in good fun and hilarious because both sides think they’re right.”

Some words and phrases, like duck, duck, grey duck, seem weird, she said, adding she’s had friends who have switched terminology because they’ve found certain words sound better.

Some students didn’t realize the cultural gap in language before coming to Eau Claire. Yet, they remember instances of feeling different because of it.

“I’ve been given crap for using certain words and not even understanding why,” junior Elsa Lacher said. “People will meet me and say, ‘So, you’re from Minnesota. You must say ….’ ”

Geography professor Paul Kaldjian said students are too concerned with grammatical correctness instead of cultural expression.

“This is the closest thing we have to a multi-lingual campus,” he said, “other than our transfer students.

“There are languages dying all around the world, and these traces of our culture are disappearing,” he added. “This is something that should be celebrated.”