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.

12 Animals Named After the Noises They Make

A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
iStock.com/PaulReevesPhotography

If you were asked to name an onomatopoeic word, then you’d probably come up with something like boom, boing, whizz, smash, or tick-tock. They’re all perfectly good examples, of course, but onomatopoeia is actually responsible for a lot more words than you might think. For instance, etymologists believe that pebble might have been coined to imitate the sound of flowing water. Laugh might have been invented to sound like, well, a laugh. Owl, crow, and raven are all descended from Old English words (ule, crawe, hræfn) that were meant to imitate the owl’s hoot and the crow’s and raven’s squawks. And the 12 names listed here are all meant to represent the bizarre whoops, chips, peeps and wows made by the animals they describe.

1. AI

An ai in Venezuela
Fernando Flores, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

As well as being a contender for the world’s shortest animal name, ai (which should be pronounced “ah-ee") is another name for a three-toed sloth, especially the pale-throated sloth, found in the far northeast corner of South America. Although sloths are generally fairly docile, the name ai is apparently meant to resemble the high-pitched cry they can make when they’re agitated or alarmed.

2. BOBOLINK

Bobolinks can produce very long and surprisingly complex songs, but their usual go-to noise is a brief four-note call that’s commonly said to sound like someone saying “Bob-o-Lincoln.” The name Bob-o-Lincoln eventually was shortened to bobolink in the 1800s.

3. CHIPMUNK

One theory claims that the name chipmunk is an English interpretation of a native Ojibwe word, ajidamoo, meaning something like “red squirrel.” But because chipmunks were originally known as “chipping squirrels” in English, it seems more likely that the name is actually an English invention, in which case it’s probably meant to describe their short “chipping” call.

4. CHOWCHILLA

A chowchilla
Seabamirum, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The chowchilla is type of logrunner, a small thrush-like bird, that’s native to Queensland, Australia. For a bird not much larger than a robin, the chowchilla has a particularly noisy call that to early European colonists and explorers apparently sounded like “chow-chilla-chow-chow.” The chowchilla was also once known as the “auctioneer bird,” apparently because (with a bit of imagination) its song sounds like an auctioneer's incessant chattering.

5. CHUCK-WILL’S-WIDOW

A cousin of the better-known whippoorwill, the chuck-will’s-widow is another species of nightjar (a family of nocturnal birds related to swifts and martins) native to the southern United States and much of Central America. Dozens of different species of nightjar are found all over the world, and they all share incredible camouflaged plumage and strange whooping calls—so if the “whippoorwill” makes a noise that sounds like poor Will is about to be whipped, then the “chuck-will’s-widow” makes a sound like poor Will’s widow is about to be chucked.

6. GANG-GANG

A gang-gang cockatoo
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

The peculiar croaking noise made by the gang-gang cockatoo of southeast Australia has been likened to everything from a creaking wooden door to a cork being pulled from a wine bottle. However you might want to describe it, the onomatopoeic name gang-gang was adopted into English from a Wiradhuri name that was supposed to imitate it.

7. HOOPOE

Hoopoe bird on a branch
iStock.com/shurub

The hoopoe is a striking-looking songbird whose name is meant to imitate its strange whooping call. Their bizarre appearance has also helped make them the frequent subject of myths and folktales over time: the Ancient Egyptians worshipped them and drew pictures of them inside the pyramids; the Romans believed that they were filthy creatures because they fed on dung and frequently nested in graveyards; and at least one old European legend claims that the younger birds look after the older ones in their old age, restoring their youth by plucking out dying feathers and licking blindness from their eyes.

8. KATYDID

A katydid on a purple flower
iStock.com/blindsquirrelphoto

Katydids make their loud and often three-syllable “ka-ty-did” call by rubbing their forewings together. They hear each other, incidentally, with ears located on their front legs. There are more than 6000 species in the katydid family, found on every continent except Antarctica.

9. MACAQUE

The name macaque was borrowed into English via French in the late 17th century, but it’s thought to originally derive from an old Bantu name, kaku, for any of the numerous monkey species found in West Africa. The name kaku is in turn supposed to be imitative of a monkey call, and it’s from the plural form of kaku—namely makaku in Bantu—that the word macaque eventually evolved.

10. PEEWIT

A type of plover with characteristic green plumage and a long curled crest, the northern lapwing has a number of nicknames in English—including the peewit, the swipe, the peepsweep, the teewhit, and the teeack—every one of which is supposed to emulate its noisy alarm call. The common name lapwing, incidentally, refers to the bird’s tactic of feigning a broken wing in order to distract predators from their nest when they feel threatened.

11. PIET-MY-VROU

Piet-my-vrou is another name for the red-chested cuckoo, a species of cuckoo found across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Cuckoos are well known for their instantly recognizable call, and it’s the loud three-note descending call of the piet-my-vrou (which literally means “Pete my wife” in Afrikaans) that gives it its name.

12. WOW-WOW

A wow-wow, or agile gibbon

Gibbons are famous for their lengthy and surprisingly complex songs, and the whooping or “wowing” call of the wow-wow or wawa—a local Indonesian name for either the agile gibbon or the silvery gibbon—is no exception. Sadly both species are now listed as endangered, due to their localized distribution and on-going habitat destruction.

This story first ran in 2014.

Guess Which Language These Words Likely Originated In

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER