Joan Hall might be making her first trip to Newfoundland this month to give the George Story lecture but she already has a connection to this province through her work.
As the editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English, she has a unique understanding of this province's Dictionary of Newfoundland English.
“They are both historical dictionaries tracing each word’s history within a place, and they both rely on oral sources, which most other dictionaries ignore," she said. "They differ in that the DNE considers the language of the island as a whole, not trying to trace regional patterns, while DARE tries to point out regional differences in the United States.”
Between 1965 and 1970, 80 fieldworkers in vans dubbed “word wagons” were sent to 1,000 communities across the United States with a lengthy questionnaire compiled by founding editor Fred Cassidy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Editing of the dictionary began in 1975 with the first volume appearing in 1985. The fifth and final volume was published in 2012.
Like the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, DARE has been used by a variety of people.
“We assumed from the beginning that it would be valuable to linguists, teachers, researchers, librarians, writers, and historians as well as to general word lovers,” said Ms. Hall, who has been an editor of DARE since 1975 and became chief editor in 2000 following the death of Mr. Cassidy. “But we’ve also been delighted to discover that it has proved useful to lawyers, forensic linguists, psychiatrists, general practitioners, natural scientists, poets and others. And our magnificent collection of audio recordings has been used by actors and dialect coaches to accurately represent the speech of regions all across the country.”
Where dictionaries such as DARE and the DNE don’t preserve language themselves, Ms. Hall maintains that they grant words a legitimacy that might not be accorded otherwise, making people proud to use them.
She is convinced that, despite the threat of homogenization by media and population mobility, there are still thousands of words, phrases and pronunciations that vary from one part of the United States to another.
“We have just embarked on a pilot survey in Wisconsin, done online rather than with face-to-face interviews and if it proves viable, we will try to do it throughout the country. Then we will be able to say with some accuracy just how American English has changed over the last half century,” she said.
Her own favourite word stands out because she came across it early in her career as a lexicographer and it was something of a puzzle. "Bobbasheely" first made its appearance in answer to a question as part of the fieldwork for DARE. An informant in Texas referred to “big Bobby Sheelies” as an expression denoting people being friendly to one another. Subsequent searches found a reference in William Faulker’s short novel The Reivers to the word being used as a verb, and a clue as to the word’s Choctaw origins in a glossary of Mississippi speech. The source for the word was subsequently found in a glossary of Choctaw in the library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Bobbasheely was added to the dictionary as a noun, defined as “a very close friend” and bobbasheely as a verb, defined as “to saunter, sashay, move in a friendly fashion; to associate with socially.”
With the fifth volume of text, and a supplementary volume of maps now published and an online edition launching in the fall of 2013, there is no end of work for Ms. Hall and her team. She, like Fred Cassidy before her and similar to Dr. William Kirwin, a DNE co-editor and professor emeritus at Memorial, appears to be unstoppable in her quest to catalogue languages.
“It's hard and sustained work, but it's also immensely challenging and satisfying. Someone recently said to me, ‘I think you have the most wonderful job in the world.’ I had to agree!”
Joan Hall will deliver the George Story lecture, From Adam’s Housecat to Zydco – The Vitality of American Regional English on Wednesday, Sept. 25, from 7-8:30 p.m. in the Bruneau Centre’s Innovation Theatre, IIC-2001. All are welcome to attend.