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The Boston Globe


The Word

American dialects from A to Z

A massive dictionary of regional language gets to ‘zydeco’—now what?

A great project on how Americans speak--make that the great project on how Americans speak--is reaching completion this spring. It only took 50 years.

When Fred Cassidy, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison, was named chief editor of a dictionary project to track American dialects in 1962, he had a faster timetable in mind. The Dictionary of American Regional English began in earnest a few years later, when 80 fieldworkers armed with elaborate questionnaires spread out to more than a thousand communities around the country. Some researchers drove green Dodge vans called “Word Wagons,” equipped with clunky reel-to-reel tape recorders--the better to document every uff-da (a Norwegian exclamation in the Upper Midwest) and pitch-in (an Indiana term for a potluck).

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