The Wisconsin Town That Didn't Learn English for Five Generations

19th-century map courtesy of Deb Gunther

In 1837 an Irishman from New York named John Hustis bought a plot of land 50 miles north of Madison, Wisconsin, and founded the town of Hustisford. For a few years, the town spoke English, the language of the Irish and English families who got there first. Then came the Germans.

Between 1840 and 1880, millions of German-speaking immigrants settled in the United States. Many of them came to Wisconsin. The German families who came to Hustisford set up German-speaking schools, churches, clubs, and shops. Soon nearly every aspect of Hustisford life was conducted in German. Even the Irish were learning it.

So far, the story of Hustisford looks very much like the story people usually tell about their immigrant ancestors: the great-grandparents came from the old country, bringing their language and customs with them. However, the story then usually continues with those immigrants working hard to assimilate, gradually learning English and adapting to their new circumstances. It ends with their children casting off the old language for good and voilà!—the melting into the pot is complete. But that's not the way it happened in Hustisford.

The 1910 Census

Around 2007, when University of Wisconsin linguists Miranda Wilkerson and Joseph Salmons began looking at historical language data in eastern Wisconsin, they found something unexpected. The 1910 Census numbers revealed that not only was German still widely spoken in the region at that time—a half-century after German immigration had tapered off—but many of those German speakers could not speak English.

In 1910, a quarter of the population in Hustisford were still monolingual German speakers. This was not because they had recently arrived; almost 60% of them had immigrated before 1880. A third of them had been born in the U.S. More surprisingly, a number of those had been born in the U.S. to U.S.-born parents. In other words, they were the grandchildren of immigrants, third generation, who had still not learned English.

Even the ones who claimed to speak English could not necessarily speak it all that well. Court records from that time show cases where people who'd claimed English on the Census form could not respond in English to simple questions from a judge.

Despite occasionally running into difficulty at the courthouse, for the most part, the lack of English didn't get in the way of a happy, successful life for the German speakers of Hustisford. Non English-speaking citizens were baptized, confirmed, educated, and married in German. They worked as blacksmiths, tailors, and merchants. They built their homes, farmed their land, and saved up for the benefit of future generations who did, eventually, learn English.

The Decline

A wave of anti-German sentiment during World War I helped speed the decline of the German language in some parts of the U.S., but did not kill it off completely. German was still a big part of daily life in Hustisford and other eastern Wisconsin towns, at least until the 1930s. For example, records show that a church in the nearby town of Lebanon decided to introduce one English language sermon a month "on a trial basis" – in 1929.

It took almost 100 years and nearly five generations for Hustisford to become a purely English-speaking town. Wilkerson and Salmons point to the story of Hustisford and the region around it as a refutation of the commonly made claim that immigrants today just don't learn English like they used to. In fact, according to a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute, today's immigrants are learning English faster than ever. They're certainly learning it faster than they did in Hustisford.

11 Words That Started Out As Spelling Mistakes

A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
iStock.com/Dirima

The word irregardless might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying that if you were to use it in a sentence, you’d be perfectly understood—and that’s more than enough evidence for it to have been accepted into many dictionaries (albeit flagged as non-standard or informal), including Oxford Dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, and even the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, which has so far been able to trace it back as far as 1912. So despite it having its origins in an error, and irregardless of what you might think of it, there’s no denying irregardless is indeed a word—and it’s by no means alone.

1. Expediate

Meaning “to hasten” or “to complete something promptly,” the verb expediate is thought to have been invented by accident in the early 1600s when the adjective form of expedite, meaning “ready for action” or “alert,” was misspelled in an essay by the English politician Sir Edwin Sandys (it was later corrected).

2. Culprit

There are several different accounts of the origin of culprit, but all of them seem to agree that the word was born out of a mistake. Back when French was still the language of the law in England in the Middle Ages (a hangover from the days of the Norman Conquest), the phrase Culpable, prest d’averrer nostre bille—literally “guilty, ready to prove our case”—was apparently the stock reply given by the Clerk of the Crown whenever a defendant gave a plea of not guilty. In the court records, this fairly long-winded phrase was often abbreviated just to cul. prit., and, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “by a fortuitous or ignorant running together of the two,” the word culprit was born.

3. Despatch

Despatch is a chiefly British English variant of dispatch, often used only in formal contexts like the name of the political despatch box in the House of Commons. The e spelling apparently began as a phonetic variation of the original I spelling, but after Samuel Johnson included it in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, its use was legitimized and thrived in the 19th century. Because Johnson himself preferred the I spelling in his own writings, however, it's supposed that he included the e spelling by mistake and inadvertently popularized the error.

4. Nickname

Nicknames were originally called eke names, with the verb eke used here in the sense of “to make longer” or “to provide an addition.” Sometime in the 13th century, however, “an eke-name” was mistakenly interpreted as “a neke-name,” and the N permanently jumped across from the indefinite article an to the verb eke. The same error—known linguistically as “rebracketing” or “junctural metanalysis”—is responsible for nadders, numpires, and naprons all losing their initial Ns in the Middle English period.

5. Ammunition

Ammunition derives from a faulty division of the French la munition, which was incorrectly misheard as l'amonition by French soldiers in the Middle Ages, and it was this mistaken form that was borrowed into English in the 1600s.

6. Scandinavia

Scandinavia was originally called Scadinavia, without the first N, and is thought to take its name from an island, perhaps now part of the Swedish mainland, called Scadia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the extra N was added in error by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, and has remained in place ever since.

7. Syllabus

If all had gone to plan in the history of the word syllabus, those two Ls should really be Ts: Syllabus was coined as a Latin misreading of an Ancient Greek word, sittybos, meaning “a table of contents.”

8. Sneeze

Oddly, sneeze was spelled with an F and not an S, fneze, in Middle English, which gives weight to the theory that it was probably originally coined onomatopoeically. At least one explanation of why the letter changed suggests that this F inadvertently became an S sometime in the 15th century due to continual misreadings of the long lowercase f as the old-fashioned long S character, ſ.

9. Ptarmigan

The ptarmigan is a bird of the grouse family, found in mountainous and high-latitude environments. Its bizarre name with its initial silent P is something of a mystery, as the original Scots word from which it derives, tarmachan, shows no evidence of it and there’s little reason why one should ever have to have been added to it—except, of course, if it were a mistake. The P spelling first emerged in the late 1600s, and is thought to have been a mistaken or misguided attempt to ally the name to the Greek word for a wing, pteron, and eventually this unusual P spelling replaced the original one.

10. Sherry

Sherry takes its name from the southern Spanish port of Xeres (now Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz) and was originally known as vino de Xeres, or “wine of Xeres.” This name then morphed into sherris when sherry first began to be talked about in English in the early 17th century, but because of that final S, it didn’t take long for that to be misinterpreted as a plural. Ultimately, a mistaken singular form, sherry, emerged entirely by mistake in the early 1600s.

11. Pea

Another word that developed from a plural-that-actually-wasn’t is pea. One pea was known as a pease in Middle English, but because of that final “s” sound, pease was quickly misinterpreted as a plural, giving rise to a misguided singular form, pea, in the 17th century. The actual plural of pease in Middle English, incidentally, was pesen.

This list first ran in 2016.

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