That all depends on where you live~ =.=a
The Dictionary of American Regional English has been more than 40 years in the making. In the early 60s, lexicographers and linguists led by the University of Wisconsin at Madison sprawled all over the country in search of unique words. They found zin-zins (a duck near New Orleans that is very juicy when cooked) and unsweet tea (to distinguish from sweet tea in the South). You probably won’t hear the word “hella” outside of northern California or “wicked” outside of western Massachusetts. More than 20 years after the first volume in 1985, the fifth and final volume of the DARE (with letters Si-Z) comes out Tuesday, March 20. We talked to Elizabeth Little, author of the book, Trip of the Tongue, about regional dialects and her own road trip in search of lost languages across the United States.
Hot Word: How do you define the line between dialect and language? The Dictionary of American Regional English contains many terms that the average American English speaker would not recognize, but it does not catalog separate dialects.
Elizabeth Little: That’s an incredibly difficult question, as the terms “dialect” and “language” are used in a number of different ways—and very few of the definitions used are particularly clear-cut or consistent. For instance, we often refer to “dialects” of Chinese when in fact many of these so-called dialects are as mutually unintelligible as Spanish and Italian. Meanwhile, we classify Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish as separate languages when in fact they have been so tangled together over the years that a speaker of one can easily read the two others—and speak the two others with relatively little effort.
I typically find it more helpful to think of things this way: A language is just a dialect with standard-issue textbooks and a disapproving glare.) Like I said, it’s an incredibly difficult question.
HW: What did you find most surprising on your journey?
EL: I was most surprised—although I think it would be more accurate to say taken aback—by the ways in which non-English-language speakers were actively targeted in the name of cultural assimilation. We’re so often led to believe that it’s a voluntary process, that we all choose to jump into the American melting pot of our own free will. And of course sometimes it is. You can’t deny that English speakers enjoy substantial economic advantages in the United States.
But sometimes it isn’t so simple. Sometimes the government decides to send Native children to boarding schools where they are beaten if they try to speak their mother tongue. Sometimes teachers tell creole speakers that their language is just “bad French” or “bad English.” Sometimes politicians try to imply that speaking any language other than English is un-American.
I found examples of these tactics again and again, and it really impressed upon me the tremendous assimilatory pressure that exists in the United States. I find it discomfiting to say the very least.
HW: Do you think any of these endangered languages may be saved?
EL: That depends on what you mean by “saved.” In Native communities there is particularly strong support for language preservation and revitalization. But depending on the vitality of the language in question, this might just mean making sure a language is documented for posterity. In the case of Mashantucket Pequot, which died out before anyone had the chance to fully document it, the tribe is attempting to piece the language back together from what materials do exist. Makah Nation, on the other hand, is teaching the Makah language to all its Head Start students and also offering upper-level language classes at the high school level. For more vigorous languages like Navajo, however, the efforts are focused on leveraging community pride and cohesion in an effort to slow the language’s decline.
But despite everyone’s best efforts, it seems very unlikely that these languages will be able to maintain native-speaking populations for very much longer. The core populations are, with very few exceptions, too small, and the gravitational pull of the English language is too strong. The Navajo, I think, have the best chance of keeping their language going, as they have a relatively large population and strong cultural and political institutions in place. I sincerely hope they succeed.
It is just so much like the situation in Taiwan that indigenous languages are becoming (or are) extinct while the government has said to preserve them by mandating aboriginal mother tongue education be put into practice in tribes.