Wednesday, 13 May 2015

On archaeodialectology

Two dialect stories: one bad news, one good news.

Let me start with the bad. I read in the Guardian a little while ago that funding for the Dictionary of American Regional English - DARE, as it's known - is going to dry up this summer, unless something dramatic happens. This splendid project has been going since 1962 - a unique window into the lexical past of the USA. I gave it a double-page spread in my English Language encyclopedia. People have been fascinated by what it has already uncovered. Dialect words and idioms have universal appeal.

It would be tragic if the ongoing systematic recording of current US dialect change were to cease. People might not notice DARE's disappearance now. But in one or two generation's time, when people ask 'how was it in those days?', as they will, they will feel the loss keenly. For nobody will know. Like undocumented endangered languages, when dialect words die, if they've never been audio-recorded or written down, it is as if they have never been.

Dialect surveys are not that expensive, by contemporary standards. DARE's annual budget is $525,000 - tiny, compared with, say, the billion-dollar-plus daily profits of the world's oil companies. So I very much hope that funding will come from somewhere to safeguard the project. I don't want DARE to end up a distant memory, known only to archaeodialectologists.

This is my term for the study of past dialects through the systematic analysis of their material remains. I adapt the definition from the one given by my archaeology contributor to The Cambridge Encyclopedia, and - as with that subject - it explores not just old artefacts (linguistic, in this case), but the people, places, and methods used in the past to discover them. My own exercise in archaeodialectology is out this month, so for me that's the good news. It's called The Disappearing Dictionary, published by Macmillan, and it's an anthology of some of the words recorded by Joseph Wright in his amazing six-volume English Dialect Dictionary, published between 1898 and 1905. You can find more information about the book here.

Wright's dictionary, and the story behind it, has been forgotten by all but a few dialect specialists, which is a shame, as it's a treasure-trove of fascinating words and phrases. I tweeted last night that I was 'mortaciously betwittered' by the Waterstone's display of Crystalia in Gower Street, and I now see my message being retweeted and favourited all over the place. Mortacious - extremely, exceedingly. Do you know it? It was recorded by Wright in Cheshire, Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Sussex, but I bet it had wider usage. Is it still being used anywhere, I wonder? The associated Macmillan website will give people the chance to say, when it's launched in a week or so. But already it seems to be obtaining a new lease of life. 'Mortaciously is now my favourite word', tweeted one. That's capadocious, I say (Devon, Yorkshire).


Talya Baker said...

Isn't it 'one or two generations' time' (apostrophe after the plural)?

Stan Carey said...

The Journal Sentinel reports that a recent influx of donations will allow DARE to continue 'with a staff of three through at least June 2016'. What happens after that is uncertain, but it buys time.

DC said...

That's great news. Here's hoping it leads to greater things.

DC said...

And re the apostrophe: I guess it depends on whether semantically you see it referring back to 'one' or to 'two'. I was obviously treating the collocation as singular.

Berta Karaim said...

It's so frustrating that there never seem to be any funds for the projects that have no immediate benefit!