AirTalk for March 15, 2012

Radical! The Dictionary of American Regional English is finally complete

Nicholas Monu/Getty Images/Vetta

Library hall

Gnarly! Hella! Wicked! No matter where you're from there are always certain words or phrases used solely by people in your region. Sure, some colloquialisms spread nationwide (like radical, perhaps), but there are some that never make it across state lines.

In the 1960s, dialect scholars at the University of Wisconsin-Madison decided it was time to put together an exhaustive compendium of American colloquialisms. From 1965 to 1970, interviewers went into the field with a 1,600-question survey covering everything from birth and death to farming and cooking.

"The result was about 2.3 million responses," explained Joan Houston Hall, chief editor of The Dictionary of American Regional English. "One major reason for slow progress… has been the tremendous wealth of digital resources, and we found that we couldn't leave them out, they're too valuable to consult them."

Besides ending up with a mountain of written material, researchers also came back with thousands of recordings featuring accents and phrases from all over the United States. Then came the daunting task of compiling all that information into several enormous volumes that is essentially the last word on words in the country.

The motivation for the book was to collect and reflect on regionalisms, not necessarily as a way to preserve language that is fading away due to television or the media.

"We can certainly learn lots of new words through television and we can learn that other people might not sound the way we do, but television is not an interactive medium," says Houston Hall. "When we hear Barbara Walters, we don't go away from the television sounding like Barbara because we communicate with people who speak similarly to the way like we do."

The Dictionary of American Regional English, which was finally completed this month, is 5,500 pages long with 60,000 entries of all the different colorful, regional ways we have of referring to objects, concepts and events.

An online component of the book is expected to launch in September 2013.

WEIGH IN

So what are the funny regionalisms where YOU’RE from? If you’re not from Southern California, did you even know you were spouting regionalisms until you left your home town? And what about you locals? What are some uniquely Californian colloquialisms?

GUEST

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


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