DARE, the Definitive Record of American Dialect, Is Done

By Mark Nichol

You can stop holding your breath now. The sixth volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English, the first segment of which was begun in 1975 and published ten years later, is now available.

DARE, one of the most ambitious lexicographical projects in publishing history, is the culmination of decades of effort by hundreds of editors, writers, interviewers, and support staff to create a comprehensive survey of the astonishing variety of vocabulary and pronunciation in the United States.

And though much has changed in language usage during the nearly half-century since the project’s first editor, Frederic G. Cassidy, launched the project by deploying dozens of fieldworkers to interview people all over the country and have them fill out an extensive questionnaire about their speaking habits, the language has remained refreshingly diverse. Despite the pervasiveness of our supposedly variety-flattening film and broadcast media, as well as the peripatetic nature of our culture, regional accents and vocabulary remain vigorously distinct.

What does this mean for writers? Novelists and other fiction writers can still convey characters’ colorful speaking patterns and word choices, though at least as far as pronunciation is concerned, they should do so with caution. (See this post from another Daily Writing Tips contributor on the topic.) In nonfiction, however, writers must avoid seeming to be condescending or, worse, discriminatory, in representing pronunciation of dialect.

Speakers of foreign extraction or of nonmainstream ethnic identity who retain foreign or regional or urban speech patterns should not be defined by the difference between their pronunciation habits and those represented by General American, or Standard American English, which is essentially a dialect that happenstance selected to predominate. Writers should keep in mind that everyone has an accent (except for me and many other residents of northern California, of course — we all talk normal), and that to faithfully notate pronunciation idiosyncrasies is to invite accusations of racism or classism.

Do, however, celebrate the rich variety of American English by exploring the vocabulary of its multitudinous dialects. DARE is available in many libraries and some bookstores — and a beta electronic version is due out later in 2013 — as are many breezier books with more modest numbers of entries. (DARE lists about 60,000 words.) Many words are, of course, suitable only for historical contexts, but others remain living specimens of our cultural word-hoard, and, thanks to you, will continue to do so.

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7 Responses to “DARE, the Definitive Record of American Dialect, Is Done”

  • Mel

    This looks really good, but at roughly $75 per volume and six volumes total, the cost is prohibitive–and the weight of the thing would “bust the bookshelf wide open.” If the publishers could plunk the whole thing onto a CD or DVD and sell it for $75, they could sell to a much bigger audience.

  • Lyn Sudlow

    This is why we have libraries. There are quite a few near me that have volumes 1-6 and will most likely pick up this last volume shortly.

  • thebluebird11

    @Mel: I’m thinking the target audience is pretty limited. Will probably be used as a reference and allowed to rest on good, sturdy shelves in large offices, while writers who work from home offices will put them on the floor or build another bookcase; anyway, it’s another deductible business expense. Your average person (like me) doesn’t need it, and if it is of specific interest, I suppose a library might have it available (for free).

  • Brian D. Meeks (@ExtremelyAvg)

    I could see where one might overdo a dialect, but like in cooking, a small dash here and there, could add flavor.

  • Fred

    I note the following:

    “…and that to faithfully notate pronunciation idiosyncrasies is to invite accusations of racism or classism.”

    Me thinks that Samual Clemmons would turn over in his grave at such silliness.

  • venqax

    “…and that to faithfully notate pronunciation idiosyncrasies is to invite accusations of racism or classism.”

    Me thinks that Samual Clemmons would turn over in his grave at such silliness.

    Amen. Ay-men, and ah-men. Heaven forfend that actually reporting what people say makes them sound bad. Accuse and be damned! LOL
    I would faithfully transcribe every nucyular irregardless of ackasations of mischiviousness or prejudist.

  • Stephen Thorn

    I think we tend to err a bit too far on the side of caution when working with accents and dialects. I know that I fall into that trap. Two years back I wrote a story in poem form told in first-person by an approximately-ten-year-old boy who was born in the mid-50’s and raised in Florida. Although I intended that he and his family were to be understood to be (black, African-American, as you prefer) their ethnicity was not actually stated in the text. I did, however, use a voice that I judged appropriate for the character (using phrases like “Pancakes is my favoritest treat” and “I et five an’ Josh et three”) but was concerned I’d come across as racist. So I had a friend who is African-American read it and give me her opinion. That was my litmus test. She said that there was nothing to worry about, that the wording seemed authentic and not patronizing or offensive. I suggest a similar test for you, dear reader, if the occasion should arise.

    Now before you reply that you don’t know a half-Venusian, half-Gelfling pirate from Atlantis who slurs his esses to ask to read your work, with the Internet I’m sure there are chat forums for pretty much any group you can imagine-up and that you’d probably find someone there who would let you bounce some words off them.

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