Sunday, January 15, 2012

Dictionary of American Regional English

My main gift this past Christmas was the first two volumes of the 5-volume Dictionary Of American Regional English.  Research interviews were done from 1965-1970, the first volume was published in 1985, and the last volume will be published this coming March.

It is a huge research project, based on a lengthy questionnaire given to people all over the country.  The problem, and at the same time, some of the charm, is that this project has taken over 45 years to complete, and language has changed a LOT in that time.  What they really need to do is do the entire project over again, with an updated questionnaire.

I'd love to see it if they do. I wonder if language will become less "regional" now that a large amount of communication happens online, creating a more common language?  Or, will it become even more separated into the equivalent of dialects, because not everyone IS online?

We've been having a lot of fun with the two volumes we now have. We first became acquainted with the project a few years ago, when some of it was put online. It's more fun in hand.  Eventually, I think all five volumes will be accessible- and searchable- online.

I used to have a fairly large collection of dictionaries. I love words. I love reading dictionaries, wandering from word to word.  They are useful for much more than looking up a word to find out how it is spelled or pronounced, or what it means.

Language is history in the making.
Having a variety of dictionaries, covering around two hundred years, it's fascinating to look at how word usage has changed. When did certain words become included in the dictionary?  There are quite a few that I was told were "not words" or "not in the dictionary" when I was a kid, that are in there now. How did that happen?  When? Why? Who gets to decide?

The appeal of a regional English dictionary to me has to do with my own background. Born in North Carolina, learned to speak in Texas, became verbally fluent in Georgia, then moved to upstate New York. Stopped talking very much for a couple of years because every word I said, someone commented on my accent. Spent a couple of years in Northern California, then back to upstate New York.  My parents are from Oklahoma and Arkansas; my step-mother is from very rural upstate New York.  What all that means is that I've had a wide variety of influences on my persona language patterns.

The thing is, we ALL have our own "personal language," based on where we have lived and where our family has lived.

Using this dictionary, I can find evidence of those influences, and it is endlessly fascinating. There are some words or expressions that are only used in very limited locations, and finding those really helps "map out" where my language comes from. I'm having a blast! (Or, alternatively, a ball, or a riot, or a great time, or...)

This morning, we discovered something in the first volume that we didn't know was there.

The questionnaire used for the research is included.

We've been playing with it and have discovered a few things.

One is that it is horribly outdated.

For example, the whole section on what people would exclaim in certain circumstances (stubbing a toe, smashing a thumb, etc) was intended for a time in which people did not use certain kinds of language in public, or even in private, nearly as much as is common now. Now, one word would pretty much cover most of it.

There are MANY questions about things that are no longer common knowledge for many people. Things about dressmaking, canning, and various other homemaking skills that most people no longer do, or at least, are nowhere near as common. One of the most telling, and, in some ways, upsetting examples of this are the many, many questions about identifying wild plants and animals, that most people, even those who live in rural areas, can no longer identify. There are whole sections of questions about farming. There are twenty-six different questions about cows. Anyone who does not live or work on a dairy farm will likely not be familiar with ANY of these distinctions. It reminded me of a documentary we recently saw a preview for, called Play Again. It examines the consequences of a child removed from nature, and is WELL worth seeing.

Think about that for a minute.
Questions about things considered "common knowledge" in 1985- so much so that different areas have their own distinct variants, created through common usage- are now questions that most people couldn't even answer, let alone know more than one word or expression for.

In this way, dictionaries share something with movies: you can often tell a lot more about when they were made, than what they are "about."

I find it quite disturbing, really, that so much of what is in that questionnaire would now be seen as obscure to many people. Possibly not so much for people inclined to unschool, but certainly to most people in the mainstream culture, and especially those in urban areas.

It makes me want to go through the whole thing and learn about all those topics I'm not familiar enough to answer the questions about. That will take a lifetime or two!

Still, even with some of the flaws, I think the project was as well done as it could have been. When it started, personal computers just barely existed. Most was done in person, on paper.  I think if they were to do it again, they could ask a lot more questions, of a lot more people, and analyze it much more quickly. I hope they do that at some point, perhaps once they have it all online.

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