Daring to Speak

March 7, 2012

Imagine if the next fad in self-help and self-improvement ran on the following slogan:

We are how we pronounce the words “caramel” and “pecan.”

The implications for identity and conflict are potentially terrifying. Nonetheless, the concept of dialect and regional differentiation of language is a fascinating one. Today on the Diane Rehm show, guests Joan Houston Hall and Ben Zimmer discussed The Dictionary of American Regional English, or DARE, a project cataloging just this phenomenon.

Listen to the show archive now.

Fred Cassidy, one of the project’s founders, was a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

[Cassidy] selected just over a thousand communities across the U.S., chosen to be as evenly distributed as possible while still sampling all the places that were notable for historic events or migration patterns. He recruited a group of 80 Fieldworkers (mostly graduate students, but also some professors), and between 1965 and 1970 they were sent out to the selected communities to interview people who had lived there all their lives. Initially some of the Fieldworkers traveled in minimally-outfitted vans dubbed “Word Wagons.”

Their findings, now spanning a five-volume set, have been used in fields ranging from theatrical training to forensic linguistics, medicine, history, and law. Underneath, as the tone of the show and comments reflected, is an ongoing fascination with the way we are united and divided by words, even within the bounds of a common language. As one commenter wrote, “Regional accents are really part of the great flavor of America.”

Now I just want to know if the original “word wagon” researchers had read Travels with Charley


Honesty, Debate, and Literature

July 21, 2011

I was driving to a coffee shop this morning, listening to the Diane Rehm show on NPR. Diane’s guest was Juan Williams, the author of Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate. The book goes on sale next week (July 26) from Random House. Here’s a piece of the description from the publisher’s website:

In today’s partisan world, where media provocateurs rule the airwaves and political correctness dictates what can and cannot be said with impunity, Williams shows how the honest exchange of ideas and the search for solutions and reasonable compromise is deliberately muzzled. Only those toeing the party’s line—the screaming voices of the extremist—get airtime and dominate the discussion in politics and the media. Each side, liberal and conservative, preaches to a choir that revels in expressions of anger, ideology, conspiracies, and demonized opponents. The result is an absence of truth-telling and honest debate about the facts.

While I have mixed feelings about Williams’s statement and dismissal and the resulting NPR funding debate, I think he raises a worthwhile question: how important are the words with which we engage in open conversation? When “diplomacy” and “political correctness” meet “honest” and “unflinching” conversation, at what point does each side need to compromise?

The same concern seems to underlie the controversy surrounding WikiLeaks. Diplomats speak more freely if they are not afraid of hearing their words in a sound byte on the nightly news; however, they also discard some of the tact and consideration associated with their posts.

Although legal concerns are certainly important, if the only angle discussed is the legal protection of free speech, I think we risk missing the personal. The promotional copy writer for Williams’ book concludes that “Only by bringing such hot button issues into the light of day can we hope to grapple with them, and exercise our cherished, hard-won right of free speech.” In my mind, it’s not quite that simple. In our media-saturated world, thousands of issues see the light of day and yet are not seen. The glare of competing messages, preconceptions, buzzwords, and mistranslation still gets in the way.

What is (often) lacking is a decompressing of the “hot button issues” into information that admits complexity and contradiction. What is (often) lacking is the idea that free speech can be used to build up, not just to tear down. What is (often) lacking is a face-to-face encounter that is not about “winning” an argument but about building a relationship.

To me, some of these missing pieces are cultivated by the study and practice of literary thinking. What I mean by “literary thinking” is a model of reading the world that places you in the perspective of others, admits and works within contradiction, and pays attention to the limitations of language and human understanding, while seeking to recognize its beauty and potential.

The idea is still half-formed, and of course, this blog is also a mediated platform subject to the same weaknesses I just identified. Perhaps my musings have no practical value at all. Nonetheless (pointless whimsy or not, impractical idealism or not, lexical gap or not), I cannot help wishing that the mode and tone — not necessarily the subject — of conversations about literature could translate more often to the political realm.