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Monday, April 20, 2015

Is it the end for the Dictionary of American Regional English?

Every page in this new volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English makes it wonderfully clear that regional expressions still flourish throughout the United States.
A 50-year odyssey to chart the dialects of America – from the toad-stranglers (very heavy rains) of Indianapolis to rantum scooting (going on an outing with no definite destination) in Nantucket – is due to come to an end this summer when funding for the Dictionary of American Regional English runs out.
A last-ditch attempt to save a project begun in 1962 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been launched by Anna Lewis, a librarian at the university who has set up a Gofundme page to raise $25,000 (£16,000) for the dictionary. But even if Lewis’s total is reached – at the moment donations only just top $6,000 – it will be a long way from the $525,000 that makes up the dictionary’s annual budget. And without significant new funding, said chief editor Joan Houston Hall, the dictionary’s staff of five will disband “almost entirely” after 30 June this year.
“Our financial crisis is not that funding has been retracted, but rather that, in this economic climate, we have simply not been able to find ongoing support,” said Hall. “The goal of the campaign was originally $10,000, but after there was initial enthusiasm, we raised it to $25,000. That, of course, would not solve our problems, but it would fill some small gaps.”
The Dictionary of American Regional English (Dare) first began interviewing people in more than 1,000 communities across the US in 1965, with the information gleaned from a 1,600-question survey. This was used to create a 60,000-word dictionary which was completed – with a final volume ending with the word “zydeco” – in 2012.
Since then, the team has been working on a digital edition, which can be updated regularly, as well as a major project to map the dialects of Wisconsin. With that data currently being processed, early findings highlight how 50 years ago, Wisconsinites called their fizzy drinks “pop”, whereas now “soda” is a much more popular term.
Residents of the state “still eat brats, lutefisk, and tiger meat (or cannibal sandwiches) and love a good fish fry,” wrote Dare’s Julie Schnebly of the findings. “But nobody claimed to be eating German potato salad or a kolacky anymore.”
And “if you ask for a slippery jim in Juneau or Algoma, there might be a few people who’d respond with something other than a strange look. (It’s a pickle.)“
“There’s a common notion that American English is becoming homogenised by the media and our mobility as a population. But I don’t believe that’s true,” said Hall. “The Wisconsin project was intended as a pilot project for an eventual re-survey of the whole country, so that we could collect evidence of the continuing vitality in and differences among American varieties. I still think that would be a hugely beneficial project, but it would be a very expensive and time-consuming one. So that’s one project that Dare will not be able to accomplish. Nor will we be able to continue to add to the dictionary all the additional materials we have been collecting since each volume was published.”
The verb “whang”, for example – “to sew up quickly or roughly; to make or mend in a makeshift way” – is recorded in the digital edition of the dictionary as first appearing in 1855. Chiefly used in the midwest, it is then shown appearing at intervals through the 19th and 20th century. A 1909 reference says: “He then killed an antelope, took the hide and made the girls some moccasins, that is he whanged up something for their feet.” But it’s still around in 2005, in the cited line: “Maybe I should whang together one of those PVC trebuchets I saw on the web a while back, and bombard her with water balloons”, and in 2008: “I just whanged up a couple of elisp modules to support fontified editing of Java source code.”
Other initiatives now on hold, said the dictionary’s chief editor, include one to put transcripts of audio recordings from each US state online, and another to make the dictionary’s materials available to app developers.
“Imagine an app for doctors, defining the thousands of regional and folk names for ailments and diseases; an app for regional foods; one for travellers in each region of the country; one for birdwatchers, with all of our regional and folk names for birds; one for writers who want their characters to use appropriate regional words and phrases; and one for makers of word games; the possibilities are limitless,” Hall writes in a piece for Dare’s forthcoming newsletter. “Ultimately, such apps could bring the lexical treasures of Dare to millions, while at the same time generating a small stream of income.”
Hall is adamant that the work of Dare is not finished, and that people remain “fascinated by differences in language, and they love to hear examples that make it clear that other people do use words differently”.
Allan Metcalf, professor of English at MacMurray College and executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, agreed, calling Dare “a monumental undertaking, the greatest dictionary project in the English language in the later 20th century”.
“Now that the print volumes are finished, it can be its own monument, six big volumes taking up more than a foot of shelf space. But in the 21st century it need not be just a monument to be dusted off now and then. With sufficient funding, it can continue to live electronically, available at the touch of a keyboard and mouse, and being kept up to date as our language changes,” he said.

courtesy of the
Sharon x

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