Dictionary of American Regional English Analysis


Dictionary of American Regional English

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

“Would you like milk or sugar in your tea?”

“No thanks, I’ll take it barefoot.”

If the interchange above seems odd, it would not have seemed so to Walt Whitman or to James Percival Lowell, the nineteenth century New England writer. They are two of the sources cited for the definition of barefoot meaning “undiluted,” or “straight,” in the first volume of a monumental reference work, one that will become the standard on questions of American regional speech.

The Dictionary of American Regional English, DARE for short, has been a project twenty years in the making and has reached its present stage of completion in that time only with the aid of computers. For the full story of the Dictionary of American Regional English, however, one must begin a century or more earlier, in the full flush of interest in the past awakened by the Romantic movement.

England had enjoyed a traditional interest in lexicography even before the Romantic era, a tradition continued and strengthened by such colossal figures as Samuel Johnson, whose Dictionary of the English Language (1755) became more or less the model for all later dictionaries. With the Romantic movement, however, two separate interests arose, interests later to be combined in the great historical and dialect dictionaries.

These interests were not that dissimilar, really: Both resulted in the study of language. The first examined folk usage, and its driving force was both a desire to know what geographical divisions occurred in a language and the Romantic fascination with the rustic and unlettered life. The other looked at language not across the dimensions of space but along the dimension of time. While Continental dialect geographers were following in the footsteps of scholars such as the Brothers Grimm, the Philological Society in England was proposing that a dictionary be compiled illustrating every English word since 1100 through each century of its use. This project, begun in 1857, was to result in the publication of The Oxford English Dictionary, a publication not completed in its original form until 1928.

Other groups with more specialized interests sponsored more specialized works. The English Dialect Society collected materials for a dictionary that would show regional variation, and in 1889, the society engaged Joseph Wright to begin editing the collection. His work, the English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905), was to inspire American competitors. In one of those seeming coincidences, which so often illustrate the same idea occurring simultaneously in different places, the American Dialect Society (ADS) was formed in the same year that Wright began his work.

In 1890, ADS began its publication of Dialect Notes, a work intended as the temporary repository of material that could be later collected into a dictionary of the dialects of American English. Making a dictionary, however, is an expensive job, and the project crept on, its progress slow, its funding uncertain.

ADS had other interests, too: Its full energies were not concentrated on the dictionary project. The society sponsored a work similar to The Oxford English Dictionary, A Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles (1938-1944). In addition, there was the Linguistic Atlas project: Workers went into the field to record pronunciations by hand or with the relatively primitive portable equipment of the time; this effort produced first the Linguistic Atlas of New England (1939-1943), an enormous book, in three volumes, mapping pronunciations within the region, a work subsequently followed at irregular intervals by similar works for the other Eastern coastal states, the upper Midwestern states, and the Gulf states, a work still in progress as of 1985.

Supporters of the original idea of a dialect dictionary still urged the completion of that...

(The entire section is 1618 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Choice. XXIII, January, 1986, p. 724.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, September 1, 1985, p. 953.

Library Journal. CX, November 1, 1985, p. 87.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, December 15, 1985, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXI, December 16, 1985, p. 168.

Newsweek. CVI, October 14, 1985, p. 91.

Time. CXXVI, October 7, 1985, p. 55.

Washington Post. CVIII, August 24, 1985, p. A1.