Interviews that helped researchers map out regional dialects from across the country are now available digitally for the first time — offering snapshots of history from the late 19th century on.
The audio clips were recorded by fieldworkers with the Dictionary for American Regional English (DARE) in the late 1960’s, as part of a five-year project to uncover regional pronunciations and vocabulary. The interviews — a supplement to a questionnaire meant to reveal regional word usage — were gathered from respondents in all 50 states. The fieldwork later formed the basis of the project’s five-volume dictionary.
But the interviews also offer an accidental accumulation of stories and knowledge from across the country, covering the mundane, the political and everything in between.
The project was launched in the 1960’s by UW-Madison English Professor Fred Cassidy, who saw the importance of capturing varying dialects of American English. The dictionary captures regional pronunciations, etymologies, and vocabularies. The last volume was published in 2012.
However, for the past 15 years, DARE staff have also been working on releasing digital recordings accumulated in the course of the fieldwork.
But staff left out the full interviews — which included a variety of casual conversation — due to privacy concerns. Now, after a four-year process of bleeping participants’ names or identifying factors from the 1,800 recordings, they are available for free online.
A significant portion of DARE’s entries are based on a large collection of written materials, including newspapers, documents, novels and letters. But about 50 percent of the volume’s entries reference the questionnaire and the recorded material.
Using a survey with 1,600 questions that would best capture all the oddities of everyday vocabulary, Cassidy sent out 80 fieldworkers to interview people in more than 1,000 communities. The aim was to find people who could best represent the dialectical nuances of a community, have them read passages from a short story and answer as many of the questions as they could.
The fieldworkers, who traveled the country in re-purposed Dodge vans called “Word Wagons,” also encouraged the 2,777 participants to talk freely about things that interested them, to get more information on pronunciation and specialized word use, DARE chief editor George Goebel said.
The huge mass of audio recordings informed over 5,000 of the dictionary’s entries, but for the most part, they weren’t “necessarily of linguistic interest, but valuable for cultural history,” Goebel said.
The search for words
August Rubrecht, 75, a former DARE fieldworker, called the experience “one of the most interesting years of my life.” Starting in the summer of 1967, he traveled through his home state of Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Delaware and New York to gather data for the project.
Rubrecht, who was attending the University of Florida at the time, based his dissertation on his DARE recordings from Louisiana. His research focused on vowel and consonant patterns as they varied across the state, mapping out how different words are pronounced.
Fieldworkers tried to talk to mostly middle-age and older informants — with a “smattering of the young” — in order to “catch what they knew before they died out or were forgotten,” Rubrecht said.
Rubrecht, who was 26 at the time he began the expedition, interviewed more than 100 informants in 37 locations, often over the course of days. Occasionally, he even became close to some of the subjects. In northern Louisiana, he met a family that that took him raccoon hunting and invited him to try the animal (“tastes like house cat,” he recalled saying). He remembers mulling over the word Cawon — a Cajun word for turtle — with a bartender in Cameron, Louisiana, over a glass of cognac.
Rubrecht went on to teach English at UW-Eau Claire for 35 years, and would occasionally reference his fieldwork when advising students about embarking on their own research.
A ‘rich’ collection
Bronte Wieland, a former DARE volunteer who majored in linguistics at UW-Madison, listened to about 300 of the recordings — which equates to “a good 150 to 250 listening hours,” he said. Wieland was one of several students who helped to bleep out personal information from the recordings. He describes the stories he cataloged as “rich.”
Wieland, who is now finishing up an MFA program in creative writing at Iowa State, said he still thinks about some of the recordings often — such as a story out of Alaska on a “trouble-making witch doctor running around town, casting spells and antagonizing the settlers,” he recalled.
Wieland also enjoyed the descriptions of everyday life — things he typically would not have found interesting if not for the “personal and compelling” detail — such as the “nitty gritty” of owning a tobacco plantation.
Most stories are comfortingly banal — a Wisconsin couple explain how “brick cheese” got its name, while a dog barks intermittently in the background; a woman with a thick New Jersey accent discusses the antisocial proclivities of a fish in her fish tank. But others paint invaluable portraits of regional milieus — for example, through the discussion of segregated schools in Ashland, Pennsylvania.
Now, not only are the interviews available to the public, but volunteers are also transcribing the recordings.
Thomas Purnell, an English professor at UW-Madison who teaches classes on language and grammar, often assigns students to transcribe some of the material. He uses DARE’s recordings for both his own research on topics such as speech patterns and sounds, and as a learning tool in the classroom.
The interview conversations were meant to uncover something interesting about words, but they also provide unintended lessons in syntax and cultural context, Purnell said.
“(Students) are able to explore a geographic region, like the Mississippi, and see how language changes over the region ... I think it helps open their eyes to the amount of variation we have in the U.S.,” Purnell said.
Goebel started working with DARE in 1983, shortly before the first volume was released. When he joined, he was working on what would become the third volume, which began with the letter “J.”
He finds whimsy in the variability of words, giving the example of “slingshot,” which has a wealth of alternatives, such as “bean shooter.” He recently learned that the term “parking ramp” is a regional term specific to Wisconsin and Minnesota.
“You’re always learning interesting things,” he said.
Goebel is the last man standing with the project, which will be wrapping up its work when he retires later this year. He plans to continue updating the entries after retirement.
DARE’s main work has come to a close, but as regional language continues to evolve and advance, “it could go on forever,” Goebel said.