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The Daggum Ol' Dictionary of American Regional English Is Getting an Update

Understanding dialects and regional quirks is fascinating.
November 26, 2013, 11:00pm

American, no doubt. But which region? via Wikimedia Commons

Over the summer, my Facebook feed became dominated by my friends posting where they were from, not necessarily physically, but linguistically. Old debates about soda and pop bubbled to the surface, everyone from Milwaukee was suddenly defending calling the water fountain a bubbler.

Unlike most things on my Facebook feed, this wasn’t annoying at all. Understanding dialects and regional quirks is fascinating—it gives individuals a sense of place and drives home what a diverse, hilarious and even poetic place that America is.

Efforts to map out America’s regional dialect have been on-going since the 19th century and thus far the most expansive and thorough investigation has been the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), which began collecting American English in the mid 60s and finally published the DARE volume of Z’s in March 2012.

Not content to rest there—or with the supplemental volume that emerged this year—DARE is launching a digital edition December 2 that, to judge from this video, sounds amazing.

But all of that pulls from the original field reporting, that happened from 1965-1970, when 80 fieldworkers armed with reel-to-reel tape recorders and 1,600-item questionnaires headed out to 1,002 communities spanning all 50 states in “Word Wagons.” For the first time since collecting those 2.3 million responses, DARE is ready to get more field research, but this time they’re leaving the reel-to-reels—and the fieldworkers—at home.

With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, DARE and the University of Wisconsin-Madison are surveying people from the 22 Wisconsin communities surveyed in the 60s and 30 new ones to reflect changing demographics. The researchers will also give people the option of calling in to complete a portion over the phone, where they’ll read something that forces them to say things like “bag” and “hay.” Hopefully this information will lead researchers to those people who go around pronouncing pillow as “pal-oh.”

When fieldworkers went into communities four decades ago, they tried to get a disproportionate number of elderly Americans to participate, because project leader and UW English professor Fred Cassidy reasoned that they’d be carrying the most old-fashioned words. “Those people had witnessed the rise of the automobile, the airplane, telephone, radio, television, general electrification, indoor plumbing, mechanization of farming—all tremendous changes in the way our society works—and they would still have had the words for the objects and processes of bygone eras,” the DARE history states.

Those people also were born into a world without television or radio, both of which were supposed to homogenize American speech. Linguists, however, say that that’s not actually happening. On the contrary, William Labov, a linguist at University of Pennsylvania, told NPR, “Whatever the influence of the mass media are, it doesn't affect the way we speak everyday. And the regional dialects of this country are getting more and more different, so that people in Buffalo, St. Louis and Los Angeles are now speaking much more differently from each other than they ever did.”

Even though it’s typically unspoken, regional dialect remains visible on Twitter and Facebook today. Not only will another round of DARE surveys be an interesting contrast with 45 years ago—and applicable for actors, writers and doctors—it’ll also be an fascinating way to chart our language’s on-going evolution en route to becoming this: