How we talk American
By Barbara Wallraff
March 1, 2012
Dictionary of American Regional English, Volume V, Chief Editor Joan Houston Hall, Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1,296 pp., $85
The title couldn’t be clearer. Still, a nonspecialist first cracking open the Dictionary of American Regional English, or DARE, might have trouble figuring out what it is. It fills five oversized volumes—or it will when the last of them, covering Sl–Z, is published this spring. It does look like a dictionary, and the first word in the first volume is the indefinite article a. But that’s where things start getting strange. The first group of citations all spell the article in question “er” or “ur” (as in, “Buh Tiger come out in er hurry, an dey graff hold er one anurrer”). The second group of citations demonstrates the use of “a” before words beginning with a vowel sound (as in, “With about a hours work we got off”). It goes on like that for 5,263 pages. The new, last volume winds up at zydeco, which, the lexicographers report with what I take to be disappointment, is “now widely known.”
DARE devotes as little space as possible to standard words with standard meanings. It doesn’t cover “technical, scientific, or other learned words or phrases.” Nor does it take any particular interest in the kinds of words that appear in dictionaries of slang or on Urbandictionary.com. What’s left? A vast, meticulously researched and organized compilation of the nonstandard words, spellings, and pronunciations that dictionaries generally leave out—American regional English.
In 1965 to 1970, DARE in effect held a barn raising for itself, sending a crew of 80 linguistic “fieldworkers,” mostly graduate students, around the country to ask locally born and raised adults, two-thirds of whom were 60 and older, some 1,600 questions. These were along the lines of “What do you call a deceiving person, or somebody that you can’t trust?” “What names do you have for different kinds of noses, according to shape or size?” “What is a pail made of? What is it used for?” “What is a bucket made of?” The fieldworkers asked about time and weather, foods and housewares, insects, trees, money, body parts, courtship, tobacco, children’s games. They filled out just over 1,000 questionnaires, containing, when the multiple answers were tallied up, some 2.3 million responses. With these they also provided biographical information on the respondents and tape recordings of them answering the questions, speaking on a topic that was familiar to them, and reading the children’s story “Arthur the Rat.” The study’s designers then sat down to analyze the field data and brought in an additional 13,000 electronic, oral, and print sources, dating as far back as 1602, when A Briefe and True Relation of the Discoverie of the North Part of Virginia, by one John Brereton, was published. Volume I, A–C, appeared in 1985, and the team and its successors have kept going ever since.
DARE contains thousands of maps, which, like everything else about the dictionary, may seem at first to come from an alternate universe. The maps look peculiar because the states are sized in proportion to their populations according to the 1960 census. So, for instance, Alaska (represented as an appendage off Washington) is shown much smaller than it is geographically—smaller, indeed, than Rhode Island. Fortunately, today’s relative populations are similar to those of 1960, and the exceptions don’t mean much for dialectological purposes. For example, Florida and Arizona have many more residents now, but since most of them grew up somewhere else, they would only confuse the picture of regional English. By design, these people would have been ignored in the DARE survey.
DARE was set in motion by Frederic G. Cassidy, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who conducted a pilot survey of regional English in Wisconsin in the late 1940s. Having satisfied himself, the American Dialect Society, and the National Endowment for the Humanities that a nationwide survey was feasible, he pressed on. Cassidy remained chief editor until 1996, when at almost 90 he oversaw the publication of Volume III, from I to ozzy (“Strange-looking, peculiar”). Thereafter, Joan Houston Hall, who had been with DARE as associate editor since 1979, took over. This continuity has no doubt helped ensure that the last entries look much like the first.
The timing of the survey could not have been better. By the 1960s, the whole country was, of course, settled. DARE fieldworkers were able to find mature adults who had grown up where they lived and who had acquired their ways of speaking before network television, population mobility, and other homogenizing influences thoroughly muddled regional boundaries. Meanwhile, scholars were beginning to use computers for noncomputational tasks, a development that DARE took eager advantage of. The computer coding of responses and citations allowed its staff to manipulate and study data in ways that were less time-consuming and more thorough than earlier methods had allowed. An online edition of DARE is forthcoming, supposedly next year, though the original goal for the print edition was to have it done by 1975, so we should probably prepare to be patient.
Reading about DARE on its website, I was surprised to learn about uses to which the first four volumes have been put. The forensic linguist and Georgetown University professor emeritus Roger Shuy has used DARE to develop profiles of writers of threat letters and ransom notes. (After a kidnapper unwisely employed the Ohio regionalism devil strip, meaning “the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street,” in a ransom note, Shuy nailed him.) A public defender in New Hampshire sought evidence that people often say things like “I could kill him” without intending to follow through with violence. Physicians have been known to look up dew poison, pipjennies, pumpknots, and salt rheum when patients complain of these symptoms.
The DARE alphabet is at last complete. Now forensic linguists can look up zaguan (“A vestibule; a porch”). Environmental lawyers can look up zanjero (“The people who take care of or open the floodgates into the ditch”). And so can anyone who needs or wants a fuller picture of American English.
Barbara Wallraff is a former columnist for The Atlantic, a syndicated newspaper columnist, and the author of Word Court and Your Own Words.