Books

American dialect project in jeopardy

As the Badger basketball team headed into the NCAA Final Four games two weeks ago, a librarian named Anna Lewis launched a crowdfunding page to give an “off-court assist” to another prized University of Wisconsin property: the Dictionary of American Regional English. “DARE is in danger. Their funding has nearly run out,” the page warned. By the following week, the campaign had raised $4,000.

But that is a fraction of the $425,000 that chief editor Joan Houston Hall says she needs to continue this half-century-long project to study how Americans talk. Unless a benefactor appears, what American Dialect Society executive secretary Allan Metcalf recently called the “greatest American lexicographical project of the latter 20th century” is scheduled to wind down in June.

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Between 1965 and 1970, English professor Frederic Cassidy sent field workers armed with a 1,600-question survey to interview and record people in more than a thousand far-flung communities. What were the local words for weather, household items, trees, courtship? Who called a “june bug” a “zoony bug” (answer: Georgians and Alabamans) or said “so don’t I” to mean “me too”? (Mostly New Englanders.) Cassidy’s team taped subjects reading a story, “Arthur the Rat,” designed to compare pronunciation, and talking freely about their interests.

Staffers compiled the information, along with quotations gleaned from printed materials, into what became six huge dictionary volumes, replete with maps and colorful quotations. Harvard University Press published the final volume, along with a complete multimedia digital edition, in 2013.

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Hall, who has spent nearly 40 years at DARE, said in a telephone interview that the grants, gifts, and royalties that supported five staffers have been harder to come by amid federal cutbacks. Though she has already sent out layoff notices — “I will probably retire,” she said — she hopes to retain one person to add to the digital edition.

But the closure would halt other active projects — for starters, finding out how Americans speak now compared to in the 1960s. “The language changes, and we want to keep up with it,” Hall said. The team recently carried out a pilot project to duplicate Cassidy’s work in present-day Wisconsin. (They found online language surveys, while cheap, “didn’t get much participation;” old-fashioned face-to-face techniques still worked best.)

They’re also creating new ways to use the older research. The team plans to release the original audio recordings, which, Hall said, amount to “a magnificent oral history” as well as a resource for linguists. Right now, though, the DARE staff has anonymized only about half of them. In addition, they’re building a system “so that developers could make apps,” she said. “The one that is highest on my list is a medical app that would have thousands of regional and folk and archaic names for ailments and diseases.” An article in Harvard Medicine last fall cited a doctor in North Carolina who was initially flummoxed by a patient who said he’d “lost his nature.” It turned out to be localese for erectile dysfunction.

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Even if Hall dreams of updating the digital edition, the dictionary is already complete as far as Harvard University Press is concerned, said director William P. Sisler in an e-mail. “It would be great to integrate new and ongoing research,” he said, but they’ve been clear with purchasers that “any future update would be many years in the future.”

Still, Sisler, like Lewis and other fans watching from the sidelines, hopes that DARE will find a last-minute reprieve. “It would be wonderful,” he said, “to have an ongoing account of how American English continues to evolve.”

Amanda Katz can be reached at amkatz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @katzish.
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