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On to Z!
April 2, 2012 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on On to Z!

“On to Z” was Fred Cassidy’s tag-line. 50 years ago the American Dialect Society appointed him editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). Now Volume V (Sl to Z), the final volume in the initial series, has been completed.

The DARE Project was an ambitious effort to document the local words and phrases used by Americans regionally, to answer the three favorite questions of dialect researchers, “Where do they say it this way? Where do they say it that way? Where don’t they say it at all?”

Cassidy, who died at age 92 in 2000, had originally hoped the dictionary would be complete by 1976, but the first volume wasn’t finished until 9 years later. Cassidy never wavered in his life’s work. “On to Z!” is carved on his gravestone.

The American Dialect Society had been talking about a regional dictionary since the 19th Century, but the project didn’t get off the ground until 1965, when Cassidy and 80 field workers took their tape recorders to the streets and back roads of America. Using DARE “Word Wagons,” campers that were specially outfitted with reel-to-reel tape recorders and  other tools researchers needed to interview the locals, Researchers researchers eventually recorded 2777 informants in 1002 communities over the six-year effort.  Life-long residency was a requirement for interviewees, and researchers preferred the old timers to get information on as many years of dialect history as they could. The survey was 1600 questions long.

NPR has posted some of the interviews here, featuring some real characters just oozing local color. They remind me of the old timers I used to know, who regardless of pronounciation, always knew how to tell a good story, a social skill that seems to have gone out of fashion once radio came along. It really brings back some memories for me of the crazy stories I used to hear from my Aunt Bertha and Uncle Lester, and that whole bunch up on the chicken farm outside Lebanon, NH.

Makes me wonder how much this detailed portrait of the American language as it was spoken in the ‘60s reflects current regional differences.

The good news for dialect lovers is that American regionalisms are not disappearing. The verbal fire hose of mass media blather spreads vocabulary and familiarity with standard forms ubiquitous, but is definitely not making Americans all sound the same. Regional dialects are thriving. Although some dialects are dying out, for example on the Sea Islands of North Carolina or the hollering they do Appalachian hollows, other regional dialects are growing more distinctive, such as those spoken in the Great Lakes, you betcha. As linguist Carmen Fought puts it: “People want to talk like the people they want to be like.”

More details on the remarkable achievement of DARE in interviews with current Chief Editor Joan Houston Hall and Wordnik founder Erin McKeam who charmingly explaining the history and significance of this vast linguistic project.

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