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A Chat With Joan H. Hall

Date:Nov 14, 2006
Time:6 pm Pacific (GMT -8)
Topic:Why bother studying American dialects?
Duration:One hour

Transcript of the chat follows this introduction.

Joan Houston Hall is the Chief Editor of Dictionary of American Regional English. Having lived in Ohio, California, Idaho, Georgia, Oregon, Maine, and Wisconsin, she is ideally suited to her task of recording regional variation in American English. Her PhD is from Emory University, where she studied the speech of rural southeast Georgia, and she has been on the staff of the Dictionary of American Regional English since 1975. She became Chief Editor in 2000 following the death of founding editor Frederic G. Cassidy.

Transcript of the Chat

Anu Garg
Welcome to the 22nd online chat at Wordsmith.Org! A note: this chat will be one hour long, even though the banner above might make you think it's going to last only 20 seconds long. (-:

Today we are chatting with with Joan H. Hall, Chief Editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English. Welcome, Joan Hall!

Joan H. Hall
Thanks very much.

Anu Garg
You are welcome to send your questions to Joan Hall.

G.L. -Ohio
What is the purpose of DARE and what progress are you making?

Joan H. Hall
What we are trying to do is to record all the words, phrases, and pronunciations that differ from one part of the US to another. For us, a region can be as small as part of a city or as large as most of the country--as long as it's not the whole country. As to progress, we've published four volumes so far, taking us up through the middle of the letter S. We're hopeful that we'll get to Z by the end of 2009.

Betty Maryland USA
I grew up in New Orleans and my accent has often been mistaken for that of a New Yorker. Why? I was told it was because the Dutch settled in both places, but I don't recall reading about a Dutch population in N.O.

Joan H. Hall
One of the characteristics that is similar in the two places is the pronunciation of the "er" sound in words like "bird" and "third." Some people would spell it as "boid" and "thoid." There has been lots of speculation about why the similarities occur, but no one is precisely sure what happened in terms of similar histories.

G.L. -Ohio
Also, isn't the media making American English increasingly standardized so that dialects are disappearing in the US?

Joan H. Hall
It's a popular notion that American English is being "homogenized," but it's not entirely true. It's surely true that language is changing all the time, and sometimes nationwide terms will "wipe out" regional or local terms. A good example is the term "gutters" for the metal pieces that take rain water over to a down spout. In New York and New Jersey, the local term used to be "leaders," but "gutters" has become the commercial term and now has largely replaced "leaders." But it's also true that there are still thousands of words, phrases, and pronunciations that vary from one part of the country to another. And often, the people who use them aren't aware that not everyone uses them.

For example, when I first came to Wisconsin, I was surprised to hear people use the word "bakery" to mean the pastries that you can buy at a bakery. To me, the word simply meant the building or the place itself. But here, where lots of people have German backgrounds, and German "backerei" can mean both the place and the baked goods, both uses were brought into Wisconsin English. . .

AnnaStrophic
I did field work for Lee Pedersen in the early '70s. Was that a forerunner to DARE?

Joan H. Hall
Great! Lee was my dissertation advisor at Emory. His work on the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States was similar in many ways to DARE, but it came after DARE fieldwork had already been completed.

Anu Garg
So, why bother studying American dialects?

Joan H. Hall
In addition to the fact that it's fascinating and makes a great conversation starter, there are lots of practical reasons to do it. For instance, imagine that you've just finished medical school and you've never lived in more than one part of the country. Suppose you're posted to a community clear across the country for your first job. What would you say to a patient who came to you and complained of having pipjennies? Sore leaders? Kernels? Pones? Dew poison? If you had DARE in your office, you could look up these words and know what questions to ask next.

weezy - pennsylvania
I am curious about the transposition of "leave" and "let" one hears so often in central PA -- as in "I let the book out in the rain last night and it is ruined." And "leave him be alone for now."

Joan H. Hall
Yes, those are heard often in PA, largely because of the heavy German settlement patterns. In German the constructions are used differently than in English, but German speakers "translated" them into English as they were used to using them.

EJB - Wichita KS
How do we define a dialect?

Joan H. Hall
Technically, a dialect is simply a variety of speech that differs from other varieties in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. With that definition, it's clear that EVERYONE speaks a dialect!

Betty Maryland USA
When I lived in Boston (Bah-ston);), I was teased unmercifully for speaking New Orleanese: "poim" instead of "po-em," "UM-brella" instead of "um-BREL-la." My dictionary did not accept my pronunciation, so I switched. Did I do the right thing?

Joan H. Hall
Well, it depends on whether you care more about fitting in or about maintaining your loyalties to your upbringing. I'm always pleased when people maintain their dialects rather than feeling that they have to switch. I like to celebrate the diversity of our language, but I realize that not everyone agrees with me.

Jay Florida
What purpose does DARE serve?

Joan H. Hall
In addition to being a historical record of our language (we always try to include the earliest example we can find of every word, plus a representative sample of examples through each word's history), it's a very useful book. I mentioned earlier the use by physicians. We've also heard from forensic linguists that DARE can be used to help solve crimes. For instance, Roger Shuy, a forensic linguist in Montana, told us of a case where someone had abducted a child. In the ransom note, he told the parents to put the money in a "trash kan" on the devil strip. By consulting DARE, Roger found that "devil strip" is the term used for the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street, and that the term is used in a very small part of the country: the area in the triangle outlined by Akron, Cleveland, and Youngstown Ohio. This bit of evidence helped him and the police to track down the suspect.

DARE has also been shown to be useful to psychiatrists who work to diagnose brain abnormalities such as aphasia. There's a test that asks patients to name various pictures of ordinary household objects. But the answer kit doesn't recognize that there are lots of regional synonyms. So someone who uses the term "tommy walkers" rather than "stilts" is marked wrong because the test makers didn't know that "tommy walkers" is a common term in the South and South Midland. So patients can not only be scored wrong, but there's a potential for a misdiagnosis as well. Psychiatrists who know about DARE can verify that their patients are using "correct" terms that just happen to be regional.

Jay Florida
How is DARE funded?

Joan H. Hall
I'm glad you asked! DARE exists entirely on "soft" money. We have had generous grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from the National Science Foundation, and private foundations have been very generous as well. But we also have hundreds of individuals who help us out by giving gifts. Some help in large ways, others in small, but we are grateful for them all. Anyone who would like to help us can find out how by going to our website and looking at our newsletters. The easiest way to find our site is to "Google " the Dictionary of American Regional English.

Anu Garg
I'd think law-enforcement departments should be funding it partially.

Joan H. Hall
I think that's a terrific idea, Anu!

AnnaStrophic
What criteria do you use to decide if a word goes in the dictionary?

Joan H. Hall
We first try to determine whether it is geographically regional, and we do that based both on the fieldwork that was done for the project between 1965 and 1970 (we have maps showing where people used particular words) and on a huge collection of written works (newspapers, diaries, histories, fiction, government documents, etc). But we also look for social distinctions such as whether a word is used especially by women rather than men, by older people rather than younger, Blacks rather than Whites, urban rather than rural, or poorly educated rather than well-educated people. And we can do this because we have those kinds of data for the 2,777 people who contributed to answering our questionnaires.

EJB - Wichita KS
My wife has often marvelled at the way I seem to change my accent depending on those to whom I'm speaking. I think that is, in part, a matter of one's ability to hear differences? I am on-track with that?

Joan H. Hall
Yes, you are. People vary tremendously in their ability to become like those around them. But those who do it well can usually do it unobtrusively. If it seems forced, then the people around them begin to feel uncomfortable.

Jay Florida
What will happen to DARE when is finishes the dictionary?

Joan H. Hall
We've already done a huge amount of the programming for an electronic edition, so we hope to keep a small staff working to update the dictionary continuously.

Jackie
Is "swivet" in your dictionary, do you recall? I failed to put Kentucky on my sign-in, but that's where I've always lived. One of my expressions that must seem totally strange to others is "your-all's", meaning that which belongs to more than one person. Have you heard that expression before?

Joan H. Hall
Yes, swivet will be in Volume V. I'm assuming you mean as in "Don't get in a swivet!"

Jackie
:) Yep!

Joan H. Hall
And yes, "your-all's" will also be in Volume V. It's not too uncommon.

Betty Maryland USA
How long does it take for people who move from their birthplace to lose their dialects? Years? And, if, after decades, they return to their birthplace, do they resume their original dialect rather quickly?

Joan H. Hall
It depends a lot both on the individual and on how old one is when he moves. Children can learn new dialects very quickly; it's much more difficult for older people. Some people surely do resume their original dialects when they return home.

Jay Florida
How do you distinguish between a language and a dialect? For example is Scots a language or an English dialect?

Joan H. Hall
People often say that dialects are mutually intelligible, while languages are not. But that's not true in China, for instance. I'd call Scots a dialect, but I know there are Scotsmen who wouldn't agree!

AnnaStrophic
What do you know about the Great Northern Vowel shift?

Joan H. Hall
It's a fascinating process--I assume you mean the Northern Cities shift? In urban areas at the base of the Great Lakes, especially among younger people and especially among women, major changes are taking place in the ways vowels are pronounced. So the word "block" now sounds like "black" and the name "Anne" sounds more like "Ian."

EJB - Wichita KS
Our family is from Chicago. We've lived in Kansas for ten years, and one of the pronunciations that irks us is the calling of crayons, "crowns." My son works at a restaurant and when people ask for "crowns" for the kids, he thinks but does not say, "This is not Burger King!" Do you have any idea about his pronunciation?

Joan H. Hall
I haven't heard "crowns," but I've heard "crans." I think it's because "crayon" is a word that doesn't pattern like other English words. One of the other great uses of DARE materials is by actors and dialect coaches who use the audiotape collection we made during the fieldwork. We have about 2341 tapes from all parts of the country, and they make a fantastic collection of oral history. We're working on putting samples of them on the web.

G.L. -Ohio
You've encountered thousands of words in your work on DARE. Are there two or three that are your favorites because of their melodiousness, meanings, or some other reason?

Joan H. Hall
My all-time favorite is "bobbasheely." It can be a noun, meaning a good friend, or it can be a verb, meaning to associate with someone in a friendly fashion. It's used primarily in the Gulf States, and it comes from a Choctaw phrase, itibapishily, which means "my brother, with whom I was suckled."

weezy-PA
Along that line, back in the late 70s in OK I was in a three-person conversations. One fellow said he'd been hunting and could not get his "airs" out of the tree. I kept trying to figure out how one's airs got caught in the tree -- were they spent cartridges, or what? The third fellow was doubled over in hysterical laughter. Then I realised it was bow and arrow season -- and while fellow number one was saying "airs," he meant "arrows" and when I was saying "airs," he was hearing "arrows." Each of us would have sworn we were both saying the same word.

Joan H. Hall
Good example!

Laur
Has the number of Canadian news reporters (and actors) affected US speech? Is the northern mid-country/received pronunciation (US style) still considered a norm for tv or radio and does this influence patterns?

Joan H. Hall
I don't think that Canadian reporters have affected speech, though Americans living near the Canadian border often have what's called "Canadian raising," where words like "out" sound more like "uh-oot." There is much more willingness these days among broadcasters to allow reporters to use their native dialects rather than asking them to use the Inland Northern dialect, which was pretty much a norm for a long time.

Betty Maryland USA
I'm still mulling over "devil strip." :) How many different words are there for the "island" or "neutral ground," the safe place for pedestrians to stop in the middle of a street?

Laur
The meridian?

Joan H. Hall
There are LOTS of synonyms for the devil strip (such as parking strip, terrace, tree lawn, boulevard), but we didn't ask about the island, unfortunately. For the grass between lanes of a divided highway there are lots of names, and yes, meridian is one. Also median. And in Upstate New York the median is called the mall.

Melanoleuca - Los Angeles
I'm convinced of the validity of all your reasons for studying American dialects, and the reference values of the Dictionary, but one can also use the Dictionary in the other direction: browsing for unusual, often amusing, sometimes enlightening vocabulary items.

Joan H. Hall
Oh, yes, definitely! It's infinitely interesting. Not just the words themselves, but also the quotations illustrating them.

Melanoleuca - Los Angeles
You mentioned a collection of written works; that raises the question of the impact of computers and the Internet on your research materials. That's all come into being since the project originated.

Joan H. Hall
Yes, and in the last few years, the number of wonderful digital resources has really changed our work. Now, we feel obligated to check a large number of the very best sources because we know that they can make our entries much better in terms of antedating our other material, or expanding our quotations. But the result is that our work takes much more time.

Jay Florida
Do you have an advisory board?

Joan H. Hall
Good question. Yes, we do. It's made up of 19 people, some of them very well known, such as William Safire, Harlan Ellison, Simon Winchester, and James J Kilpatrick, who often mention DARE in their writing. But those who are less well known are equally committed to helping us get to Z.

Joan H. Hall
No one really knows why it's happening. But maybe it will comfort you to know that there is also a Southern Cities Shift happening at the same time!

Joan H. Hall
Wow! That's amazing.

gpotter
What is the origin of "fixing to" do something? I have observed that mainly in the South.

Joan H. Hall
Yes, it's mainly found in the South and the South Midland. I'm not sure of the precise origin, sorry.

ejb-wichita
Some African Americans here in Wichita actually pronounce "fixin' to" as "fin to." Do words continue to shrink with repeated use?

Joan H. Hall
Sometimes that seems to happen, particularly when people speak quickly and casually. "Finna" is the way I've often heard it pronounced by African Americans.

Anu Garg
And that was our last question for today. Thank you, Joan Hall, for being our guest today.

Anu Garg
For more, please visit DARE website.

Joan H. Hall
Thank you, too. I've enjoyed it.

Betty Maryland USA
Thanks for an enjoyable hour, Ms. Hall.

Laur
Thank you Joan! And Anu!

ejb-wichita
Thanks, Anu, for facilitating.

Jay Florida
Thanks and lets all contribute to DARE.

Melanoleuca - Los Angeles
And buy the Dictionary volumes.

weezy-PA
Thanks all.

Tim Snyder - Houston
Thanks for discussing this fascinating topic!

Joan H. Hall's picture

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