Do you call it a sub? A grinder? A hoagie? A poor boy? That all depends on where you live.
The Dictionary of American Regional English has been more than 40 years in the making. In the early 60s, lexicographers and linguists led by the University of Wisconsin at Madison sprawled all over the country in search of unique words. They found zin-zins (a duck near New Orleans that is very juicy when cooked) and unsweet tea (to distinguish from sweet tea in the South). You probably won’t hear the word “hella” outside of northern California or “wicked” outside of western Massachusetts. More than 20 years after the first volume in 1985, the fifth and final volume of the DARE (with letters Si-Z) comes out Tuesday, March 20. We talked to Elizabeth Little, author of the book, Trip of the Tongue, about regional dialects and her own road trip in search of lost languages across the United States.
Dictionary.com: How do you define the line between dialect and language? The Dictionary of American Regional English contains many terms that the average American English speaker would not recognize, but it does not catalog separate dialects.
Elizabeth Little: That’s an incredibly difficult question, as the terms “dialect” and “language” are used in a number of different ways—and very few of the definitions used are particularly clear-cut or consistent. For instance, we often refer to “dialects” of Chinese when in fact many of these so-called dialects are as mutually unintelligible as Spanish and Italian. Meanwhile, we classify Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish as separate languages when in fact they have been so tangled together over the years that a speaker of one can easily read the two others—and speak the two others with relatively little effort.
Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ve been consistent with my use of the terms over the years, because as my understanding of language (and the various social, economic, and political forces that influence it) has grown, so has my use of the terms evolved.
The way I typically try to think of it—and this is a necessarily simplified model, so it’s certainly not a perfect depiction of the real world—is that a given language is a collection of dialects. These dialects form a continuum of mutual intelligibility, with speakers of the dialects on either end of the continuum sometimes having real difficulties understanding one another.
Meanwhile, the “standard” language in a given country—which we often conflate with the language itself—is the particular dialect used by institutions. (It has been said that a language is just a dialect with an army and a navy. But I typically find it more helpful to think of things this way: A language is just a dialect with standard-issue textbooks and a disapproving glare.) Like I said, it’s an incredibly difficult question.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I am very interested in English-language variation throughout the United States. I think the twists and turns our language takes—and how those twists and turns are perceived—is extremely valuable data for anyone interested in understanding power and prejudice in American society.
Also, it’s just really cool. The DARE is basically catnip for linguaphiles, and I can’t recommend it highly enough as a great way to get lost in American English on a lazy afternoon. One of my favorite entries is julebukk, a term primarily used in historically Norwegian communities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. It is used to describe the masked revelers who travel from door to door between Christmas and New Year’s, a Christian homage to the old tradition of dressing up in goatskins during the winter solstice festivals (i.e., Yule).
The DARE includes this wonderful quote from one of its informants in Wisconsin, a delightful illustration of the difficulties we sometimes encounter as we navigate the cultural complexities of American life:
People in Stoughton will still go julebukking before Christmas. The first time julebukkers came to our door, I had no idea what was going on. Several people wearing ragged old clothes and rubber masks that covered their faces pushed their way into the living room and silently pointed opt the mugs, shot glasses, and plates they were carrying. They wouldn’t speak or identify themselves. I didn’t realize they were expecting cookies and a cup of Christmas cheer—I almost called the police!
DCom: What inspired your linguistic travelogue?
EL: It all started when I moved to Queens, really. I’d been living in New York City for a couple of years at that point, but somehow I’d managed to see very little of the city. Then I moved to this incredibly diverse neighborhood—and, not unrelatedly, started working from home—and I began to realize just how many languages and cultures were bumping up against each other on a daily basis. That’s what first led me to think about the language experience in a nation comprised largely of immigrants and their descendants.
I actually originally planned to limit my investigation to New York, but I decided that there were many more dimensions to the country’s linguistic history that I wanted to explore. Also, I just really like road trips. So I started to compile long lists of cities and towns and languages and cultures, and soon enough I found myself heading west to North Dakota on the first of many adventures.
DCom: Have you learned (or tried to learn) any of the languages you chronicle?
EL: I try to learn a little bit of just about every language I come across—it’s a bit of a compulsion, really—so I’ve certainly spent some time with primers and textbooks for the languages I write about in the book. I was more focused on my research than on the language study, though, so I certainly didn’t develop any lasting proficiency.
I spoke quite a lot of Spanish going into my research, but that’s the only language I would claim any level of fluency in. I will say, though, that because the creole languages I write about (Louisiana Creole, Haitian Creole, Gullah) are influenced by languages I know (English and French), I am able to read quite a bit in those languages. That said, Haitian Creole is different enough from Standard French that I really do need a lot of help.
I would love to be able to spend some real time studying many of the Native languages I discuss, Navajo in particular, but I find those languages so challenging that it will take time and effort that I don’t quite have at the moment. Toddlers do tend to get in the way of just about everything.
Dcom: What’s the most interesting language you encountered?
EL: Well, I honestly found them all interesting or I would have cut them from the book. But for me, as I hinted at above, the language I would most like to investigate further is Navajo. It is so different from English—and from any other language I’ve studied in depth—and I would love to see if my brain is flexible enough to wrap itself around its constructions (its verbs in particular).
I’m fairly certain, unfortunately, that my tongue won’t be able to wrap itself around its pronunciations. But I’d hope that I would be able to make up for with enthusiasm what I might lack in phonological proficiency
Dcom: What did you find most surprising on your journey?
EL: I was most surprised—although I think it would be more accurate to say taken aback—by the ways in which non-English-language speakers were actively targeted in the name of cultural assimilation. We’re so often led to believe that it’s a voluntary process, that we all choose to jump into the American melting pot of our own free will. And of course sometimes it is. You can’t deny that English speakers enjoy substantial economic advantages in the United States.
But sometimes it isn’t so simple. Sometimes the government decides to send Native children to boarding schools where they are beaten if they try to speak their mother tongue. Sometimes teachers tell creole speakers that their language is just “bad French” or “bad English.” Sometimes politicians try to imply that speaking any language other than English is un-American.
I found examples of these tactics again and again, and it really impressed upon me the tremendous assimilatory pressure that exists in the United States. I find it discomfiting to say the very least.
Dcom: Do you think any of these endangered languages may be saved?
EL: That depends on what you mean by “saved.” In Native communities there is particularly strong support for language preservation and revitalization. But depending on the vitality of the language in question, this might just mean making sure a language is documented for posterity. In the case of Mashantucket Pequot, which died out before anyone had the chance to fully document it, the tribe is attempting to piece the language back together from what materials do exist. Makah Nation, on the other hand, is teaching the Makah language to all its Head Start students and also offering upper-level language classes at the high school level. For more vigorous languages like Navajo, however, the efforts are focused on leveraging community pride and cohesion in an effort to slow the language’s decline.
But despite everyone’s best efforts, it seems very unlikely that these languages will be able to maintain native-speaking populations for very much longer. The core populations are, with very few exceptions, too small, and the gravitational pull of the English language is too strong. The Navajo, I think, have the best chance of keeping their language going, as they have a relatively large population and strong cultural and political institutions in place. I sincerely hope they succeed.