A Way with Words

Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette are the co-hosts of the public radio show and podcast "A Way with Words."

You might be hard-pressed to conjure up what a Delaware accent sounds like. Or the regional slang that a person from Nebraska uses.

But everybody knows, or thinks they know, how a Wisconsinite talks. From our unmistakable ‘Scansin accents to our ability to pepper conversation with “Ope!” and “Cripes!,” Badger State residents have an instantly recognizable way of talking.

Which is why the co-hosts of the public radio show and podcast “A Way with Words” are thrilled to perform their first live shows in Wisconsin this week. After appearing in Milwaukee on Wednesday, co-hosts Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette will talk talking (and take lots of questions from audience members) at 8 p.m. Thursday at Shannon Hall, 800 Langdon St.

“Wisconsinites love to talk about the way they talk,” Barrett said in a recent phone interview with Barnette. “We’re going to talk about the vowel sounds and the German influence and the Scandinavian influence, and the reputation that Wisconsin has in the rest of the country as being a place where people talk funny.”

“A Way with Words” can be heard at 9 a.m. Sundays on WPR’s Ideas Network, and can also be downloaded in podcast form. Barnette and Barrett talked about what they have planned for their live show in Madison, the ways that language is changing (and not changing), and what’s the deal with Wisconsinites calling a water fountain a “bubbler,” anyway:

Are you preparing Wisconsin words in advance, or do you wait and see what audience members will bring up?

Grant: Man, I am preparing some things in advance. We’ll talk a lot about why and how Wisconsin is a little different than the rest of the country. There’s so much to get into.

Will the “bubbler” come up?

Grant: It will now! The cool thing about “bubbler” is that there’s only two parts of the country where that’s known to be said. In both of them, it was said that because it was a manufacturer who made a particular model of a water fountain that was called “bubbler.”

Language is such a great window into regional culture and history. People talk about the country becoming more and more homogenized, but when you dig into the language, it seems like that’s not the case.

Martha: Exactly the opposite is true. We’re more diverse than ever. We get questions all the time from people who move from one part of the country to the other, and they use a term they’ve used their whole lives, and people look at them like they have two heads. Like bubbler, I suppose.

Grant: On a big scale, people really think that media has a greater influence than it does on the shaping of American speech. It has an effect on the lexicon, the words we use. But in terms of the way we sound, how we make our consonants or our vowels, we are growing more and more diverse every year.

Where people are right is that the old ways of speaking are moving on. They are dying off, they are modifying, they are disappearing. Which always happens, and isn’t moving any faster than it used to.

How do the shows go? Are they live tapings?

Martha: They’re not live tapings. Grant does some fun stuff about language, like dialect and slang. I tend to focus more on fun etymologies. We always leave plenty of time for Q&A, it’s always the most interesting part. We did a sold-out show in San Diego last week, and the cleaning crew was practically shouting at us to get off the stage.

Grant: We have a ball with it. Martha’s etymologies, we will literally hear gasps when she says something, and all the light bulbs start popping off in people’s heads.

Did you come at language from different backgrounds and angles?

Grant: I’m a dictionary editor by trade, and I’ve been working with sociolinguists for 25 years in a variety of different ways. Martha studied with a multilingual man who taught her an incredible amount about ancient Greek and Latin and all these other connections. She’s from the classical tradition of word etymology, and I’m from the field work tradition of finding out things that are happening, the way people communicate now.

We’re like a brother and sister. We fight about stuff every once in a while, but we enjoy each other's company, and we find that where one of us lacks, the other picks up.

When people talk to you, do they expect that you’re going to use your full range of language?

Grant: I didn’t want to say anything Rob, but this whole time we’ve been talking, I’ve been judging your speech.

Totally fair.

Martha: Fortunately we find that less and less, though. I remember when we first started the show 13 or 14 years ago, people would be terrified to talk to us. They were so afraid that they would say something wrong.

What they’ve learned over the years is that we’re not so prescriptive as descriptive. We really revel at the diversity of language and the different ways people have of expressing themselves.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.