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


Top 10 Relevant Reads

March 26, 2009

I wrote recently about the resurgence in popularity of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In the past, I’ve written about the deep-set ire that accompanies discussions of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Although most classic literature can offer something relevant to individuals, some books just seem to be appropriate for the concerns of a particular era. 

Without further ado, here’s my top 10 list of books (in no particular order) with a message that might resonate in 2009: 

  1. John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent
  2. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
  3. Pearl Buck, The Good Earth
  4. Shakespeare, Timon of Athens
  5. Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  6. J.R.R. Tolkien, Leaf by Niggle
  7. Giles Slade, Made to Break
  8. Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis
  9. Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
  10. Arthur Miller, The Death of a Salesman

What’s your list?


Reading the Recession

March 24, 2009

Check out this story from the Washington Post:

John Steinbeck

Seventy years after John Steinbeck published his best-selling tale of the Joad family’s journey from Oklahoma to California along Route 66, “The Grapes of Wrath,” required reading that never really went out of style, is suddenly in high demand.

Is Steinbeck a feel-good author in a time when encouragement is really needed? Possibly, but the article’s author doesn’t stop there. Quelling the notion that Steinbeck’s books offer a sympathetic “ear” to current economic problems, she suggests that Steinbeck might be whispering a satisfied “I told you so” somewhere in the hereafter:

But listen to Steinbeck on the American obsession with things: “If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.” That sentiment, written in a 1959 letter to his friend Adlai Stevenson after the Charles van Doren “Twenty One” scandal, expresses Steinbeck’s outrage at a world so morally bankrupt that people were cheating on television game shows. 

One of my favorite Steinbeck novels is The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), which brilliantly showcases the gradual erosion of moral principle that tags along when the American Dream morphs into the pursuit of wealth. The article’s author heads in a similar direction. She says,

My favorite Steinbeck scolding comes from “America and Americans.” It describes the domino effect of materialism, the way “having many things seems to create a desire for more things.” And it culminates in the disaster that Santa hath wrought: “Think of the pure horror of our Christmases when our children tear open package after package and, when the floor is heaped with wrappings and presents, say, ‘Is that all?'” 

I don’t think I’m the only reader looking at this statement and thinking, “Pure horror? Pure fact.” Maybe, instead of just picking up Steinbeck to remind ourselves of the enduring power of the human spirit, we ought to consider some of his other, subtler messages about responsibility and materialism.