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.