Merchantville NJ 08109, USA
I was fortunate enough to go on a vacation to Italy in 1994, right
about the time when my interest in linguistics was taking off. One of
the missions I gave myself was to find books and music in the local
dialects of the places we visited. Europeans have a long and rich
dialect heritage, and towns just a few miles apart often have quite
distinctive modes of speech.
I still remember that day in a Venetian bookstore, amazed to see a
rather massive dictionary of the Venetian dialect, about the size of
the largest one-volume standard English dictionaries seen in
bookstores. Unfortunately, I had to leave that treasure behind--it
would have made my luggage too heavy and my wallet too light--but I
managed to find plenty of other books to satiate my curiosity.
After about the second week, when the homesickness started to catch up
with me, my thoughts started to turn toward my own native language. We
all know that New Yorkers and Southerners have their own peculiar
accents: but what about the rest of the country? Was it possible to
speak of a "Philadelphia dialect" just as an Italian would speak of a
Subsequent years of research answered that question, and I found to my
happy surprise that American dialects were not indistinct nor
uninteresting, they were simply poorly documented. Four hundred years
of English settlement in North America have given rise to numerous
dialects; not perhaps, as fully diverged from each other as those of
Europe, but neither were they the homogenous slurry the pessimists make
them out to be.
Neither the regionalist nor the scientist in me wants to see our
dialects pass into history unrecorded. In my work with American Indian
languages, many of which are only just barely preserved, I often wish
that some early explorer had had the foresight to record some of those
mysterious languages better. We can't go back in time and recover that
lost information. But shame on us if we lament its passing and then
repeat the mistake by not properly documenting the very dialects that
come out of our own mouths.
On my shelf is a book containing a 2250 word glossary of an Italian
dialect, spoken only in my father's hometown of 1500 people. Before a
few years ago, there was no comparable glossary of the dialect of my
own hometown, Philadelphia PA, which boasts speakers in the millions.
To me, that's a wake up call right there.
I don't have much patience for the myriads of articles that decry the
"loss of regional languages" in America. Certainly, some regional
dialects are dying off, especially in rural areas: but the most recent
studies have shown that American English is if anything diverging not
homogenizing. And even if our language was homogenizing, how much more
important to document all of its idiosyncratic variations while we
still hear them!
We need, first of all, to understand the overall picture of American
dialectology much better. This monumental task is now being
by the most talented professional scholars in the field, with the DARE
and the Phonological Atlas, and many other excellent studies. Next,
materials need to be fully utilized to describe the speech of all the
localities around the country. Once all of the main areas have been
documented, it will be easier for local folklorists everywhere to
and publish their own data. Most importantly, the study of dialect has
be put in a form that is accessible to the lay reader.
The impracticality of grandiose dialect research projects in such a
vast nation, has been soberly understood by American dialectologists
since the early 1900's. Even the best of them, such as DARE, have
incurred financial and methodological difficulties. In true American
fashion, therefore, it is up to the citizens themselves to shoulder the
burdens of research, to use
some of that classic rugged individualism and contribute to the world
letters in whatever way their talents direct them. We cannot afford to
snobbish about who will do the job: there is too much to do, and too
great a risk of tasks left undone.
It is my hope, then, that this site provides an added stimulus for
people who are interested in regional speech, to get them to realize
that interest in a concrete way. My hope is that we can catch up with
our European friends and eventually have full dialect
descriptions--grammars and dictionaries--for every major city and
region in English-speaking North America.
As a great believer in the unique legacy of North American
civilization, and as a student of history, I can easily imagine
scholars two millenia from now looking back upon our seemingly
uneventful lives with fascination, and wondering how such a vast and
varied civilization expressed itself.
Let us do them and ourselves a great favor, and ensure that they have
the answer to just such a question.