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Editor of The Dictionary of American Regional English, Joan Houston Hall

Carrie Antlfinger, Associated Press

Regional dictionary reboots for new generation

  • Article by: ARIEL CHEUNG
  • Associated Press
  • April 21, 2014 - 8:41 AM

APPLETON, Wis. — Linguists aren't often called upon to solve crimes, but when a child was abducted in Illinois more than a decade ago, a handwritten ransom note was all police had to go on.

"Do you ever want to see your precious little girl again?" the pencil-scrawled message read. "Put $10,000 in cash in a diaper bag. Put it in the green trash kan on the devil strip at corner of 18th and Carlson. Don't bring anybody along. No kops!!"

Forensic linguist Roger Shuy quickly dismissed the misspellings of "kan" and "kops," which he determined were the author's attempt to mask his higher level of education since more complicated words like "precious" and "diaper" were spelled correctly.

But the phrase "devil strip" caught Shuy's eye. That term, which describes the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb — also known as a berm or terrace — is used in only one place: Akron, Ohio. And it just so happened the police's suspect list included an Akron man. When police confronted him, he confessed to the abduction.

The term "devil's strip" and its long list of synonyms can be found in the Dictionary of American Regional English, a project launched in Wisconsin in the 1940s. Fred Cassidy, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wanted to create a regional dialect dictionary for the United States, something that was already in the works in England.

From 1965 to 1970, 80 graduate students and professors traveled the country in vans they dubbed "Word Wagons." They surveyed more than 2,700 natives of 1,000 communities about the words they used in their daily lives to describe everything from mayflies to pancakes.

Editors then compiled the 2.3 million responses to the 1,600 survey questions into a dictionary. They got to the letter "Z'' in 2012.

But with data that is now 50 years old, the dictionary is missing scores of entries for modern technology, machines and inventions. Its vocabulary is dated, so researchers are returning to the field to update and expand the six-volume dictionary and bring it into the 21st century. And they're starting, once again, in the Badger State.

In November 2013, Wisconsinites were invited to participate in the updated survey. Instead of sending field workers in Word Wagons across the country, the dictionary, affectionately called DARE, went digital.

"It's a common perception that American English has been homogenized as we become a mobile population that reads and listens to the same media, but I'm not convinced that's entirely true," said Joan H. Hall, DARE's chief editor. "Certainly language changes, but there are things we've grown up with — you're not going to stop calling a bubbler a bubbler, and you might, in fact, take pride that not everybody says that."

The first time around, researchers targeted an evenly distributed range of communities that included places notable for historical events or ethnic groups. Big cities with great shifts in population were avoided. The primary focus was on older people, and ideal participants were lifelong residents, which provided for more localized responses.

"If you think about people who were 80 at that time, they had lived through tremendous changes in our society," Hall told Post-Crescent Media (http://post.cr/1hMtegO). "When they were young, they didn't have cars or TVs or radios. So they would remember the terms for old-fashioned farming and things before electrification."

In Wisconsin, the 22 communities surveyed in the 1960s stretched from larger cities like Janesville and La Crosse to small communities like Bayfield and Jim Falls. The 2014 update added 29 communities to the list, including Milwaukee, Oshkosh and Menasha. Researchers hope to find lifelong residents or people who have lived in the community for at least 15 years, but responses from all age groups will be accepted.

"We talked with people at the applied populations lab at UW and worked with them to find communities that were representative of the state in terms of geographical distribution," Hall said. "But we also wanted to sample as many kinds of populations as we can, from large cities to villages and rural areas."

The number of questions has grown from 1,600 to 1,722 in 41 categories, which include everything from favorite card games to nicknames for the toilet. The goal is to have one completed questionnaire for each community before the survey ends June 30. If the Wisconsin pilot project is successful, a nationwide reboot could take place, Hall said.

In a sparsely decorated office in a Touchmark Village cottage in the Town of Menasha, Bob and Shirley Phillips are chuckling over one of the questions in the courtship section of the DARE survey.

"Nicknames or affectionate names for a sweetheart," reads Shirley Phillips, 78. "Well, what do I call you, Bob?"

Their daughter, Kathleen Thunes, is helping her parents work through various sections of the online survey. The three are huddled around the computer, and they exchange stories and possible answers for the different questions.

"It brings back memories," Shirley Phillips says during a break. "The older I get, I pop out with these expressions I haven't used or needed in years. And it's fun to do together."

When the family reaches a question in the food section about the types of biscuits in the area, she pauses, hovering the mouse over the answer "saleratus biscuits."

"My dad used that word," she says. "It's just another word for baking-powder biscuits."

She flips through the next couple of questions, which ask how she pronounced the word "syrup" (rhymes with FEAR up? FIR up?) and other names she has for pancakes.

"Flapjacks are a family recipe," Thunes says. "They're more similar to crepes."

Thunes attended a recent meeting at the Menasha Public Library, where Hall discussed the various uses of DARE and invited participants to try the survey. She said she's always been interested in dialect and linguistics, and figured her parents, long-time residents of the area, would be ideal subjects for the survey.

The variety and range of answers for the questions were surprising, Shirley Phillips says.

"We read a lot, and we think our vocabulary is generalized, but maybe it isn't as general as we thought," she says. "But there are a lot of different nationalities here."

Even after 100 years, she says, Little Chute is still predominantly Dutch; Menasha, mostly Polish.

"You'd think it would have dissipated," she adds.

Forensic linguists aren't the only ones who use DARE to assist with their work, Hall said. Physicians have called with questions about their patients' ailments, like when they've "been rifting," a word for burping mainly used in Pennsylvania, or getting "jags in their leaders," otherwise known as pains in the neck.

A University of Chicago psychiatrist consulted the DARE office about strange responses to the Boston Naming Test, which shows pictures of items for the patient to identify to determine if they're suffering from aphasia, a type of language memory disorder. Southern patients looked at pictures of stilts and called them "tommy walkers," which wasn't listed in the answer key.

"We assumed librarians would use it, and of course they do," Hall said. "Lawyers use it to figure out if a work is trademark-able or, if they're reading testimony of a person from a different part of the country, they look up a word to make sure the meaning isn't different in a different place."

Others have found value in audio recordings of participants from the original 1960s survey.

"Dialect coaches and actors use the audio recordings, and oral historians love it," she said. "Folks from indigenous language groups say it's very useful, because you can search individual languages and find all the entries that come from Algonquin or other languages."

Diane Keaton studied the tapes to perfect her Mississippi drawl in the 1986 film "Crimes of the Heart."

"We sent a variety of tapes of women from the part of Mississippi she was interested in for her to listen to," Hall said. "To some extent, we were surprised by how many different uses people had for DARE."

Hall said she is looking forward to evaluating the responses from the new Wisconsin survey and comparing them to how people spoke 50 years ago. So far, 115 people have at least started the survey. Hall hopes that number doubles by the end of June.

"Things that were distinctly Wisconsin words like 'golden birthday' and 'squeaky cheese' that are characteristic of this state — we can find out whether other people have adopted them," Hall said. "And there's no way to know unless we do the research."

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