Dictionary of American Regional English

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Dictionary of American Regional English

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1618

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

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“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 project, however, and in 1962, Frederic G. Cassidy was named its editor, at the same time that the United States Office of Education was agreeable to funding the project for five years. Within those five years, the major work of the Dictionary of American Regional English was undertaken.

First, a questionnaire was compiled and tested, one that ended with 1,847 questions grouped in forty-one categories. These categories covered a variety of topics: time, weather, topography, houses, furniture, utensils, food, games, courting and marriage, and so on. Armed with the questionnaire, field workers interviewed more than a thousand informants across the country—an average of approximately twenty per state—asking questions such as: “What do you call a small musical instrument that you blow on, and move from side to side in your mouth?” At first, Cassidy expected to be able to compile the results of the dialect survey in another five years, but that work was to stretch on to ten, and fifteen, and twenty years. Now, in 1985, the major editing is completed, and the publication phase has begun. The first volume to appear, covering letters A to C, amply justifies the wait.

First, a word about what is not found in the Dictionary of American Regional English. The work supplements regular dictionaries; it does not attempt to cover standard words or even those of limited circulation if they are limited because they have technical, scientific, or learned meanings. Limited is the important word here: If the jargon of some industry or profession is widespread—logging, say, or mining—its distinctive vocabulary has been included.

The work lists any word or phrase whose form or meaning is restricted in use, either geographically in part or parts of the country, or socially, by a particular social group. Second, the work includes any word or phrase distinctively a folk usage, defined as one learned in the neighborhood, so to speak, not in schools or from books. Cassidy notes that folk usage is traditional and largely oral. One fruitful source of folk usages, even today, is the play of children. Children’s games also indicate the variation among regions: Thus, the game in which a ball is thrown back and forth over a house may be called (depending on the region) Annie, Annie-over, Anthony-over, Annie-novo, Annie-nover, and more.

To appreciate the richness of information which may be found in the Dictionary of American Regional English, consider that an entry for a word or phrase contains the following: first, the word, compound, or phrase itself in its standard spelling (if it has one), together with cross-references to variant spellings; next, the part of speech of the item, followed by its pronunciation when the sound of the item may be doubtful and when the files contain specific information about its pronunciation. The next piece of information is an etymology (when needed), then the geographical labels showing where the word is used. Often this information is displayed on a special form of a national map developed for the volume, one that shows the states roughly in their spatial relationships—but with the size of each state magnified or diminished in proportion to its population.

The geographical information is followed by usage labels, if any are appropriate, such as the term’s frequency of use, for example, rare or occas (for occasional); its currency, marking the term as obsolete or old-fashioned, and the like; the term’s user: rural, Gullah, and so forth; and finally, its manner of use—as jocular or derogatory. What follows are dated quotations, beginning with the earliest example found in American use, at least one other example per century (as in The Oxford English Dictionary), and a recent example. The Dictionary of American Regional English draws these examples not only from the survey that is its heart but also from extensive private and earlier collections, the materials of Dialect Notes and its successor, the Publications of the American Dialect Society, the complete file of the journal American Speech, and more than five thousand publications—regional novels, local newspapers, diaries, and letters. Finally, each item has a definition and sense divisions if the term has more than one meaning.

For the reader who wishes to make best use of this harvest of information, Cassidy has provided a generous amount of introductory material. The dictionary opens with the editor’s introduction, outlining the history and development of the project in some detail, describing the practices of the field workers, the nature of the informants selected, and the procedures followed. The useful and unusual maps are explained in a comprehensive essay by Craig M. Carver. Cassidy adds a short discussion, “Language Changes Especially Common in American Folk Speech,” which is followed by James W. Hartman’s full and accurate “Guide to Pronunciation.” Hartman’s essay is probably the best short summary of the pronunciation of American English in print. For those with more than a casual interest in the survey itself, the complete text of the questionnaire is reproduced; there is even a listing of information about each one of the more than one thousand informants, giving a reference number, the community, the community type (such as rural, small city, and so on), the informant’s age group, education, occupation, sex and race, and the year of the interview.

The Dictionary of American Regional English is, in a way, a time capsule, since much of the information it contains will no doubt pass from usage in another generation. With American children trained by television and industry to sedentary and evermore expensive pastimes, how many now can state the difference between an aggie, a bull’s-eye, a cat’s-eye, a chiney, and a glassie? How many would know they are (or were) all kinds of marbles? To Americans of the future, the Dictionary of American Regional English will be a monumental storehouse of the variety of folkways and speech of its citizens, because a dictionary of a language is also a history of a people. For Americans now, it is simply the biggest and best description of those parts of English that are distinctly and characteristically American.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 43

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.

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