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


Bread and Change

February 15, 2012

The rhythm and pulse of a community are expressed in speech. To speak that language in that tempo is part of what it means to belong. As a young girl bemoaning her lack of southern accent, I’m pretty sure I attempted to express this sentiment more than once. That being said, John Steinbeck does it so much more eloquently in Travels with Charley. Take a look:

Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.

I who love words and the endless possibility of words am saddened by this inevitability. For with local accent will disappear local tempo. The idioms, the figures of speech that make language rich and full of poetry of place and time must go. And in their place will be a national speech, wrapped and packaged, standard and tasteless….What I am mourning is perhaps not worth saving, but I regret its loss nevertheless.

Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days…and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance. It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us. The lines of change are down. We, or at least I, can have no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain. (83)

“The endless possibility of words” would be a beautiful motto. (On the other hand, “I do not know” would be a far more accurate one.)