This is so subtle that I don't know if I'm imagining it. I think I hear two different pronunciations of this word. Are these really distinguishable? Wikipedia says /wɪ ˈskɒnsɪn/, but their audio link sounds to me like Wis-consin. Wiktionary lists the two as separate pronunciations.

I think I say Wis-consin, but for example newscaster Robert Costa seems to say Wi-sconsin. I wonder if this is a regionalism or a difference between how locals say it and how other people say it. But my wife and I both seem to say Wis-consin, although I'm from California and she's from Buffalo.

I had always imagined that things like this were merely arbitrary rules used for hyphenation. In English, there are no smaller morphemes contained within the word, and the Algonquian etymology seems to be unknown. It came to English through French, which does have words like Scaramouche with word-initial "sc." If there is a difference that I'm hearing, is it a difference in the length of the first syllable, or a difference in how the "s" and "c" are articulated together?

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    try English Language & Usage for this one. – jk - Reinstate Monica Dec 16 '20 at 14:26
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    @jk-ReinstateMonica: Seems to me that my question has some aspects that are linguistic and some that, as you say, are just a matter of dictionary English. – Ben Crowell Dec 16 '20 at 14:33
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    My mother's family was from Wisconsin and we travelled there often. I've heard both the aspirated and the unaspirated version. Both sound correct, though I only use the unaspirated one when speaking. It seems to me that this is a matter of how an individual shapes their own internal version of the universal English rule Aspirate Initial Stops In Stressed Syllables. What counts, for some people, as "Initial" within the Meaning of the Act? It appears that some hear an initial /sk/, others an initial /k/, which is duly aspirated. – jlawler Dec 16 '20 at 19:01

The pronunciation [wɨskɑnsn̩] is probably more common, but I have encountered pronunciations from people raised in that part of the world that are something like [wɛskʰɑnsn̩] (and discussed the pronunciation with them: I don't know why [ɛ]). This is more or less what the two Wiktionary entries suggest, with some competing judgments about best vowel symbols. The phonological analysis would be that the form differ in whether the first syllable constitutes a separate stress foot, hence different syllabificications, hence the differences in aspiration and vowel quality. It is not controversial that there is some form of distinctive prosody in American English, hence words like latex vs. latest, and variation in the production of the first syllable of economy. Drawing from the other end of the country, there is an obscure lexical distinction between Yakima pronounced [jækəmɑ] the town with a 2 stress feet, and [jækəmə] the tribe (now spelled Yakama) with one trisyllabic foot. Pronunciation of place names in American English is notoriously arbitrary – it's how you can tell "you're not from around here".

There is some linguistic utility to the study of such variations, since they probably reveal something about an underlying mental system. I very much doubt that main stress can be in the first or last syllable of Wisconsin, but there is room for variation in the penult-stressed sequence of segments. Theoretically, such variation is available in Pamela and Panama (with 2 stress feed), but the words are so well-known and don't have an ambiguous consonant cluster, so they have only one pronunciation (each: AFAIK).

  • Thanks for your answer! You seem to be hearing this as being all about the stress pattern, which makes sense. I had been trying to hear it out as being about the timing and length of phonemes, or their articulation. There must be something technical I don't understand about how this relates to aspiration. – Ben Crowell Dec 16 '20 at 19:16
  • The general rule is that voiceless stops at the beginning of the stress foot are aspirated, and length/timing are all about the stress pattern. I would say that the main cause is the footing pattern, which then is realized as differences in vowel length and quality, as well as aspiration. – user6726 Dec 16 '20 at 19:42

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