WISCO proves it's not what you say, but how you say it

By Vanessa Shirley
Engage Staff

Professor presenting

When UW German professor Dr. Joe Salmons and English professors Dr. Tom Purnell and Dr. Eric Raimy applied for an Engage Award (Simulations & Games) three years ago, they were looking for a way to give undergraduate students a chance to do "real" research in linguistics.

"We started from the belief that having people do something real gets them excited," explains Salmons.

The group proposed a software program that would allow undergraduate students a way to link speech patterns with geography. The Wisconsin Speech Chain On-Line or WISCO is an interactive mapping program. Using their own speech and that of friends and family from across Wisconsin and beyond, UW students can not only understand the phonetics of speech, but also compare and contrast data from different regions.

"This is actual analysis. They're not learning about how language works with exercises with simplified data " they're doing new analysis on data they've gathered. Stuff that nobody's seen before."

Salmons says students have already made some astounding discoveries. After collecting data on the pronunciation of the words "bag" and "bad", students found that many Wisconsinites use a long "a" sound for "bag", regardless of age. At the same time, younger people in parts of the state are no longer pronouncing the word "bad" with the "Northern Cities" accent that linguists believed was still spreading through the state.

Professor presenting

The next step for WISCO is to start analyzing consonants in addition to vowel sounds. Students are currently tackling the pronunciation of words like "buzz" versus "bus" in various Wisconsin communities. Young people are saying "buzz" almost like "bus" in Southeastern Wisconsin, but not in Southwestern Wisconsin. Purnell, Raimy and Salmons hope to continue to develop WISCO and create live, interactive maps that show the roles of lakes, rivers and social characteristics like gender in dialect patterns.

"WISCO has fundamentally changed how we're teaching a whole set of classes on campus," says Salmons. "And it's going to change how we understand American English far beyond campus."

Students are about to start presenting their findings through WISCO at a national conference and eventually, the WISCO team wants to make WISCO accessible to other researchers. Their goal for the program is fairly modest: "World domination, at least in linguistics."