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.

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

iStock.com/VectorStory
iStock.com/VectorStory

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

Scholar Claims the Voynich Manuscript Is Written in a 'Proto-Romance' Language

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons

Various theories have attributed the Voynich manuscript to cryptographers, aliens, and pranksters. The book, written in an unknown text and dating back to the 15th century, has stumped codebreakers since it was rediscovered by a rare book dealer named Wilfred Voynich in 1912. Now, a scholar from the UK claims that the Voynich code isn't a code at all, but one of the only surviving examples of a proto-romance language, Artnet News reports. If true, it would have huge implications on the study of linguistics as a whole, but experts are hesitant to endorse the findings.

Gerard Cheshire, a research associate at the University of Bristol in England, describes his alleged breakthrough in a study published in the journal Romance Studies. He claims that the Voynich manuscript was written in a fully formed language Europeans spoke centuries ago. Proto-romance laid the foundation for modern languages like French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. Hardly any known examples of it survived in writing because it was mainly a spoken language. Most important texts from the time were written in Latin, the official language of royalty, the church, and the government.

After identifying the Voynich script, Cheshire claims it took him just to weeks to translate the text. One passage next to an illustration of women struggling to give children a bath lists adjectives like noisy, slippery, and well-behaved, according to Cheshire. Another section, written beside pictures of volcanoes, describes islands being born out of volcanic eruptions. The scholar believes that Dominican nuns compiled the manuscript as a reference book for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon—Catherine of Aragon's great-aunt.

Many people have claimed to have cracked the Voynich code in the past, and experts are hesitant believe that this time is any different. After academics expressed concerns over the study, Bristol University where Cheshire works released a statement distancing itself from the research. It reads: "We take such concerns very seriously and have therefore removed the story regarding this research from our website to seek further validation and allow further discussions both internally and with the journal concerned."

If Cheshire's research does prove to be valid, that means he's accomplished something the greatest code-breaking minds in modern history could not. Not even cryptographer Alan Turing could crack the cipher.

[h/t Artnet News]

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