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The Word

American dialects from A to Z

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

Greg Klee/Globe Staff

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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By 1970, the questionnaires were completed. The editors’ next task was to make a dictionary out of the results, enriched by illustrative citations fleshing out every word’s history. Cassidy originally hoped to see DARE finished in time for the country’s bicentennial in 1976. But the first volume, covering A through C, wasn’t published until 1985, and the editors were still slogging away when Cassidy died in 2000.

Now the fifth and final volume is upon us, from slab to zydeco. Earlier this month, Joan Houston Hall, who took over as chief editor of DARE after Cassidy’s death, brought a copy of the long-awaited Volume V to the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society in Portland, Ore. When she revealed it to the assembled language scholars, the excitement was palpable. Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, shared the exultant news on Twitter: “DARE is complete, A-zydeco! Yay!”

The celebration was justified. DARE stands alone as the most exhaustive record of regional speech in America, each page bursting with geographically nuanced information about the country’s diverse lexicon. It’s a joy to page through: Where else would you learn that snuff for chewing is called snoose in the Pacific Northwest, and also goes by the name Swedish condition powder?

Though DARE is finally done, with Volume V officially publishing in March, the varied language of Americans marches on. How can DARE avoid becoming a relic? It’s a substantial challenge of capturing something as dynamic as American dialects: No single historical snapshot can really do it justice, especially one trapped on the printed page.

To address these concerns, Harvard University Press is planning an online interactive edition of the dictionary, slated to launch next year. And if Hall has her way, the work of DARE will continue, with a return to the communities that the fieldworkers visited with their Word Wagons.

Hall acknowledged that any such undertaking would have to change with the times. “Of course we’d have to change the questionnaire to some extent,” she said, “because nobody knows what whiffletrees or whippletrees or singletrees or swingletrees are anymore.” (Those would be regional terms for a horizontal crossbar used for harnessing a draft animal to a wagon.) Along with more contemporary questions, a new survey would need to account for the country’s changing demographics, including a huge population shift to the Sun Belt and an influx of new immigrants.

But there are also larger changes in how Americans speak, and new collection techniques beyond Cassidy’s wagons. We’re communicating differently, with face-to-face interaction often replaced by electronic chatting. Despite the homogenizing effect of people sharing these technologies, regional language patterns are not fading. In fact, recent research shows that dialectal patterns of American English are going strong, whether we speak or write--or more likely type. Instant-messaging and tweeting often emulate colloquial spoken forms, and those forms will differ based on whether you’re in San Francisco or Pittsburgh.

These new online ways of talking also lend themselves to new kinds of eavesdropping. At the Portland conference, one young scholar gave a sample of how dialectology can be done in the digital age. Brice Russ, a linguistics graduate student at Ohio State University, presented a paper that compared traditional mapping of dialect differences to the new geography of Twitter usage. By looking at the locations that people put in their Twitter profiles, Russ was able to generate maps with thousands of data points, showing where people say soda, pop, or coke, where they say hella to mean “very,” and where they say “the car needs washed” instead of “the car needs washing.”

Hall, for her part, is receptive to these rich online troves of dialect data. “It’s very exciting to see what’s being done in studies of tweets,” she said. “And if they can be traced to a legitimate geographic source, that could certainly be quoted in the dictionary in an electronic edition as additional evidence of what’s going on right now.” But she stresses that Twitter-based studies could never take the place of the careful, systematic surveying of people’s speech habits that DARE pioneered 50 years ago. Some of that surveying can now be done online, some over the phone, and some by traveling to people’s homes in the modern-day equivalents of Word Wagons.

Though the labor-intensive face-to-face interviews of Cassidy’s fieldworkers likely could never be replicated, dialectologists are exploring how to combine traditional methods with new tools to collect data online. With such a variety of techniques at hand, Fred Cassidy’s legacy seems stronger than ever in 2012, and it won’t be stopping at Z.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.
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