Madison, Wis. • University of Wisconsin students and researchers set out in "word wagons" nearly 50 years ago to record the ways Americans spoke in various parts of the country.
Now, they're doing it again, only virtually.
This time they won't be lugging reel-to-reel tape recorders or sleeping in vans specially equipped with beds, stoves and sinks. Instead, work to update the Dictionary of American Regional English is being done in front of computers, reading online survey results.
"Of course, language changes and a lot of people have the notion that American English is becoming homogenized," said Joan Houston Hall, who has worked on the dictionary since 1975 and served as its editor since 2000. The only way to determine if that is true, though, is to do more research, she said.
The dictionary, known as DARE, has more than 60,000 entries exposing variances in the words, phrases, pronunciations, and pieces of grammar and syntax used throughout the country. Linguists consider it a national treasure, and it has been used by everyone from a criminal investigator in the 1990s tracking down the Unabomber to Hollywood dialect coaches trying to be as authentic as possible.
The dictionary can help explain why skeezicks (an affectionate term for rascally children used mainly in the northern mid-Atlantic region) play hopscotch in most places, except Manhattan where it may be called potsy or in Chicago where it's known as sky blue.
Usually, when people each bring a dish to share it's a potluck dinner. Except in Indiana, where it may be called a pitch-in. In northern Illinois it's a scramble. And then there's the bubbler, the Wisconsin way (common in the southeast corner of the state) of referring to a drinking fountain.
The dictionary chronicles American English words and phrases like those, while also giving readers a broad history of how English is spoken in the U.S. It traces popular, and not-so-popular, words and phrases to their origins. Then it breaks down how they've been used, with maps showing their geographic range.
"Think of every language as being a country," said Erin McKean, founder and leader of the online dictionary Wordnik and a past editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary. "DARE is the only map of American English that shows where the words live and how they're used by whom."
She called DARE one of the 10 most important dictionary projects ever undertaken.
The first of five print volumes, which only covered A through C, came out in 1985. The final one, covering "Slab" through "Zydeco," was released in 2012. Along with a sixth volume that contains maps and other data, the collection takes up 14 inches on a book shelf, spans 6,624 pages, and weighs about 33 pounds.
And soon, anyone who has been searching hell-for-leather (in great haste, mainly used in the West) for an electronic version of the dictionary will be able to get one. Harvard University Press, which publishes the dictionary, plans to put out a Web-based version of it Monday that allows users to hear the original field recordings of words and phrases being spoken, to customize their use of the data and to view maps showing different uses of words throughout the country.
Subscribing to the online site will cost $150 a year. Buying all six volumes of the book version will set you back $740.
Even though no new research has been done for the dictionary since 1970, Hall said she hopes it can now be updated more frequently now that it is going online. The key will be gathering new data tracking how language has changed, or stayed the same, since the first round of field work ended 43 years ago.
But why not break out the 21st century version of the word wagon and head out in the field again?
"Because it would be way too expensive and time-consuming," Hall said, laughing. So, instead, Hall is loading up the virtual word wagon also known as the online survey. The survey, based largely on the original questionnaire but updated to remove outdated references like farming with wooden plows, will only gather information from the original 22 Wisconsin communities where the first field work was done. It will also be administered to people living in 30 other communities chosen to reflect the state's current demographics.
That survey work, which began this week, is scheduled to be done by June 2015. The results will be used to make adjustments to the survey's methodology before attempting to use it nationwide to show changes in language from the original survey, Hall said.
Maybe when the next phase is done, it will be hog-killing time (a southern term for a loud, boisterous party).