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Preserving American Language Is Worth Paying for

Apr 06, 2015
Ideas
Katy Steinmetz is TIME's San Francisco Bureau Chief, covering news and ideas in the American West. In addition to writing features for TIME and TIME.com, she pens a column on language and organizes the occasional spelling bee.

As the University of Wisconsin gets ready to take the court in the NCAA championship on Monday night, with the potential to rain down glory on the Badger State, a guillotine is threatening to come down on one of that school's greatest contributions to American history.

The Dictionary of American Regional English, based at the university's flagship campus in Madison, is preparing to turn off the office lights for good because its funding has dried up. This project, which has spanned half a century, has dared to capture all the ways Americans speak English—the slang we use for food in different parts of the country, the nostalgic gibberish we say in childhood games, the sound of a Bostonian uttering the word car (much less referencing one near Harvard Yard).

"We're simply running out of time and money," says editor Joan Houston Hall, estimating that the project's budget will dwindle to $100,000 by summer, or less than 20% of its usual annual budget. If everyone, including her, is laid off or politely asked to retire, that'll be enough to keep one editor on staff and "wind things down" after that.

DARE, as it's familiarly known, contains records of words that no other dictionary in the world does, gathered over the course of decades by field workers going door-to-door in the United States. DARE's catalog, which its staff is working to update and expand online, is as much a part of our folk culture and history as Johnny Appleseed or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And the editors want to do it all over again, setting out to survey America about the words we use today and how we say them.

There is no telling how many phrases the editors led by Hall have already saved from a quiet extinction, by preserving them in DARE's first, and perhaps last, edition. (The final volume was published in 2012, nearly 50 years after fieldwork began). Creating a record of American speech is just like preserving pop art paintings or Prairie School architecture or early jazz recordings—except that it's much easier to forget that fragments of our language are historical objects. A child may yell "all-ee all-ee oxen free" for all of their youth and never stop to think why they said it or whether people will continue to say it after them.

To get a sense of what DARE editors collect, imagine a Duke basketball player and a Wisconsin basketball player from the 1960s. The Wisconsin player might say the Duke player is meaner than dirt. The Duke player might respond that the Wisconsin player didn't have enough sense to pour piss out of a boot. If a person nearby sneezed, the polite Wisconsin player would likely say, "Gesundheit," while the the Duke player would say, "Scat!" On court, while the Wisconsin player heaved the ball, the Duke player would chunk it. If the Duke player gave up, he could holler calf rope, and the Wisconsin player would cry uncle.

Now imagine that it's 2015 and the Wisconsin player wanted to mess with the stenographer at a news conference. He might drop in a distinctly American word like cattywampus—or other regional terms that mean bent out of shape, like whomper-jawed, wop-sided and skew-gee.

Recording the myriad words that Americans have used and continue to use for dragonflies or peanuts or an abundance of something—oodlins, as they say in Kentucky—is a historical job but also a contemporaneous one, which must continually be done as language ebbs and dies and gets reborn. DARE, says Vocabulary.com Executive Producer and linguist Ben Zimmer, is "the most important record that we have of the way Americans speak and how Americans reflect society through language." The Wisconsinite says gesundheit, after all, because that part of the country was once packed with German immigrants.

The editors at DARE are trying to share their work, putting audio of interviews done around the U.S. online and paying staff to add new words to a database that has no outward limit. In an ideal world, cataloging American speech every 50 years would be something we did like a census. Few things transport us back in time like a well-placed groovy or cat's pajamas. Yet the lack of funding is threatening to make DARE an epic one-off project rather than an ongoing one.

The money that the DARE team needs to keep going for a year—about $525,000—is a drop in the bucket compared to the University of Wisconsin's $3 billion budget and is small compared to the $12 million in revenue that its men's basketball team netted last year. Yes, the school is facing tough 13% budget cuts over the next two years if Governor Scott Walker's budget plans come to pass. But on this exciting eve for Wisconsin, when a college basketball program appears as strong as ever, it's worth sparing a thought for a few small rooms at the same university where people are starting to look for new jobs. And if you happen to be a billionaire who loves language or American history, perhaps there are a few thoughts that might come after that—before DARE goes kaput.


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