Do you call it a sub? A grinder? A hoagie? A poor boy? That all depends on where you live.
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.
Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ve been consistent with my use of the terms over the years, because as my understanding of language (and the various social, economic, and political forces that influence it) has grown, so has my use of the terms evolved.
The way I typically try to think of it—and this is a necessarily simplified model, so it’s certainly not a perfect depiction of the real world—is that a given language is a collection of dialects. These dialects form a continuum of mutual intelligibility, with speakers of the dialects on either end of the continuum sometimes having real difficulties understanding one another.
Meanwhile, the “standard” language in a given country—which we often conflate with the language itself—is the particular dialect used by institutions. (It has been said that a language is just a dialect with an army and a navy. But 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.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I am very interested in English-language variation throughout the United States. I think the twists and turns our language takes—and how those twists and turns are perceived—is extremely valuable data for anyone interested in understanding power and prejudice in American society.
Also, it’s just really cool. The DARE is basically catnip for linguaphiles, and I can’t recommend it highly enough as a great way to get lost in American English on a lazy afternoon. One of my favorite entries is julebukk, a term primarily used in historically Norwegian communities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. It is used to describe the masked revelers who travel from door to door between Christmas and New Year’s, a Christian homage to the old tradition of dressing up in goatskins during the winter solstice festivals (i.e., Yule).
The DARE includes this wonderful quote from one of its informants in Wisconsin, a delightful illustration of the difficulties we sometimes encounter as we navigate the cultural complexities of American life:
People in Stoughton will still go julebukking before Christmas. The first time julebukkers came to our door, I had no idea what was going on. Several people wearing ragged old clothes and rubber masks that covered their faces pushed their way into the living room and silently pointed opt the mugs, shot glasses, and plates they were carrying. They wouldn’t speak or identify themselves. I didn’t realize they were expecting cookies and a cup of Christmas cheer—I almost called the police!
HW: What inspired your linguistic travelogue?
EL: It all started when I moved to Queens, really. I’d been living in New York City for a couple of years at that point, but somehow I’d managed to see very little of the city. Then I moved to this incredibly diverse neighborhood—and, not unrelatedly, started working from home—and I began to realize just how many languages and cultures were bumping up against each other on a daily basis. That’s what first led me to think about the language experience in a nation comprised largely of immigrants and their descendants.
I actually originally planned to limit my investigation to New York, but I decided that there were many more dimensions to the country’s linguistic history that I wanted to explore. Also, I just really like road trips. So I started to compile long lists of cities and towns and languages and cultures, and soon enough I found myself heading west to North Dakota on the first of many adventures.
HW: Have you learned (or tried to learn) any of the languages you chronicle?
EL: I try to learn a little bit of just about every language I come across—it’s a bit of a compulsion, really—so I’ve certainly spent some time with primers and textbooks for the languages I write about in the book. I was more focused on my research than on the language study, though, so I certainly didn’t develop any lasting proficiency.
I spoke quite a lot of Spanish going into my research, but that’s the only language I would claim any level of fluency in. I will say, though, that because the creole languages I write about (Louisiana Creole, Haitian Creole, Gullah) are influenced by languages I know (English and French), I am able to read quite a bit in those languages. That said, Haitian Creole is different enough from Standard French that I really do need a lot of help.
I would love to be able to spend some real time studying many of the Native languages I discuss, Navajo in particular, but I find those languages so challenging that it will take time and effort that I don’t quite have at the moment. Toddlers do tend to get in the way of just about everything.
HW: What’s the most interesting language you encountered?
EL: Well, I honestly found them all interesting or I would have cut them from the book. But for me, as I hinted at above, the language I would most like to investigate further is Navajo. It is so different from English—and from any other language I’ve studied in depth—and I would love to see if my brain is flexible enough to wrap itself around its constructions (its verbs in particular).
I’m fairly certain, unfortunately, that my tongue won’t be able to wrap itself around its pronunciations. But I’d hope that I would be able to make up for with enthusiasm what I might lack in phonological proficiency
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.
Dialect is almost synonymous to language. As what was mentioned, there are several dialects in country that are absolutely separated from each other, whilst there are languages that are quite similar with others.
Well, now, it’s spelled “wikkid”, and it is heard all over eastern Massachusetts.
Chinese have many dialects that differ from each other. Manderin is very different from Cantonese, and Thew-Chew is much much more different from the other two. :3
I like that phrase that language is basically a dialect with an Army and Navy.
People automatically love the language they speak and any attempt to force the native speakers to substitute one for the other is asking for trouble. Presidential aspirant Mr. Santorum should know better than to ask Puerto Ricans to speak English instead of Spanish. Actually learning a language is conquering it. That’s the reason as to why the U.S. Special Forces are given language training in the areas of conflict that they’re assigned. At present, the Chinese love learning American slangs.
Hmmmm… that’s interesting! At school we have pen pals with people in Azerbaijan. They just wrote to us, and it’s weird to realize that the English language is the odd one out! We say, “the yellow sneakers,” and the rest of the world says, “the sneakers yellow.” Spanish Translator… you’re right about languages being similar to others! My teacher, Mrs. Dinsdale, knows many languages. When she learned French, Spanish was really easy because the languages were so alike!
Waggishly, someone remarked that the best thing the English did for the Irish was to force them to adopt English. With the result that the greatness of the Irish literary tradition is celebrated internationally. Indeed, several of the greatest “English” dramatists are Irish: Congreve, Shaw, Wilde, for example.
For a negative look at this read or see Brian Freil’s TRANSLATIONS, a marvelous play about how England forced the language change on her neighbor.
I think anyone who wants to live and work in the US, and certainly citizens should be required to speak English very well. I should not have to work to understand anyone living here (obviously visitors are an exception). This means fluency in English should be mandated before citizenship. That being said, I think it is tragic that people move away from an equal fluency in thier native language. Language is a huge part of cultural identity and the dying out of a langue due to coersion or apathy is nigh intollerable. If you want to live here, learn our language, but don’t let your own language die either within you or within your people.
lo que paso paso
“Wicked” actually extends beyond western Mass (though not far…) I’ve grown up in southeastern Massachusetts and have many friends from Rhode Island. “Wicked” is quite common in our vocabulary closer to the shoreline!
SO, youre in a forest
you see two female deer
you see the doe & the doe see you
than they look at eachother
and doe see doe!
ps. a sandwich is called nom nom nom! enuff said!
Enjoyed reading it
@MannyHM: That expression, “…language basically a dialect w/ an army & navy” attracted me too like you …. Un4tunately, not being an English speaker, wondered about the meaning. So if you didn’t mind kindly let me know what it meant
As if langauge isn’t hard enough, add to it the fact that every individual frames the words he speaks with a different meaning, and it is just about a miracle that we can understand each other at all! Good article.
Haa Haa Haa. Who cares anything about sandwiches, subs, or clubs. I have been shined down my whole life. I am a witch who lives on Nims islands, off the coast has a nice beach house, and can turn anyone into sand. It makes me so sad when someone comes to my door and asks for a sandwich. This old hag has had it here with this. Where I come from sandwitches are known as jabbies. Well anyone who sees this comment vote for me. (say “I think the Sand Witch is da boss, and should be respected a much as jabbies are). don’t get me wrong. I love sandwiches, just not the natives of Nims island who give me no respect.
“Wicked” is also said in Maine, as in “It’s wicked cold out there today.”
Maine has been left out in this article, and that is a REALLY REALLY REALLY big error!
[...] “Gone Downy Ocean” in the summer. — Would we call that Regional English? — What would Elizabeth say? — How Little knows: — We know not. — Oui, B’More or Less that way. — All that talk of sandwiches made us stop for lunch. — Sitting down in silence, — A Grinder to a halt — Poor Boy, Sub the work out and call it Sunday brunch — and please don’t Ban Gestalt. — Get the Car Michael but first put out the Stogie — Not On some piano or lobster roll. — Just don’t call us Johnson — Enjoying music Wit Da Hoagie. –>>L.T.Rhyme [...]
That dictionary looks a lot like mine! But mine has blue dots instead of red.
Waffles must b called dEHFOOD for slang…. ^3^
So what is different about the word “wicked” in southeastern Massachussetts than in other parts of the country? I have seen and used “wicked” all over the U.S., both in its original meaning and slang versions.
Interesting article. As a linguaphile and a traveler, I too have come across some odd differences in language in the US.
Growing up in Cincinnati, we always used the word, ‘please,’ in the obvious fashion as a pleasantry, but it had an additional meaning and use as well. PLEASE = ’sorry, what did you say?’ So if a person said, ‘wow, it’s hot outside,’ I might answer–if I didn’t hear them clearly–’please?’ And, then they would repeat the statement louder. I have never heard the word ‘please’ used anywhere else in this manner than Cincinnati… and it has fairly strict boundaries to the city… family, living only 30 miles outside of Cincy don’t use ‘please’ that way. In fact, I’ve had folks actually ‘pin down’ my hometown because I’ve used ‘please?’ instead of ‘what?’ out west or down south.
While in college in Cincinnati, I had a linguistic professor who could tell each student in our class (about 25 of us) not only where they grew up, but where the students’ parents grew up!!! Simply by asking them to name a common object on the board…. seriously, he got everyone right. That’s how the first day of class started, so he had us all hooked on this ‘magic of linguistics’ he displayed from day one.
Object: a cast iron or aluminum circular cooking container with a handle. It’s generally flat, the sides are low, somewhat curved, and it is used primarily for frying foods, although some versions can be used to bake food in the oven. (i.e. the cast iron version is used frequently to bake cornbread in Eastern Kentucky)
Cincinnati has an impressive German heritage–our annual Oktoberfest Zinzinnati–is second in size only to the Oktoberfest in Germany! But, if you’ve ever come across Cincinnati Chili… then you might have found out that Cincinnati also has an impressive Greek population. And, the greeks have a sandwich, made traditionally with lamb & onions on pita, called GYRO.
BUT, the word GYRO, has been borrowed heavily by others and can now mean any sandwich on a roll!!! Plus… I bet some of you call the sandwich on a roll a HERO? Which is likely just a ‘bastardization’ of the word GYRO. In Greek, Gyro sounds somewhat like, ‘ghear-roh.’ And, that sounds very close to ‘hear-roh,’ or Hero!
I call the object above a SKILLET, btw….
Find the exclamation mark
J, Aside from your comment being off-topic: The United States has no official language, and mandating fluency in any language that is not the official language of the country is fairly silly. (Also, the British might balk at Americans calling English “our” language.) English can be an incredibly difficult language to learn for non-native speakers, and many native speakers can’t even write English fluently. As long as people are doing their best to communicate with you, have a heart. Unless all your ancestors are all from the British Isles, they had a difficult time once, too.
what? this did not make very much sense to me at all
nom nom nom !!! that is very cool
for the record, it’s Po’ Boy, not “poor boy”. If you went into a sandwich place here in the south and asked for a “poor boy” they’d point you to anyone inside the restaurant.
I quite agree with Elizabeth Little in that so many rich and textured languages are dying out quickly, and that this is a tragedy. As a 3rd generation American on my mother’s side, I can barely recognize the German language which my grandparents spoke to me. It takes a dedicated community effort to help a “second language” or non-mainstream language thrive.
The question is and should never be which one language shall prevail. An immigrant, or a descendant of an immigrant,….or anyone interested in their neighbor’s language for that matter….should be allowed to embrace both their native language as well as the predominant language of their adopted country.
Not so very long ago (prior to WWI especially, and before WWII to a lesser extent), the privileged would ensure that their children learned and mastered at least two additional languages alongside the nation’s mainstream vernacular. It has been determined that doing so actually helps to open new neural pathways, particularly in a developing brain system.
wicked is still more south of the NH border but another regionalism “stoved up” belongs to the great north woods and maine
we use wicked here in central New Jersey….
ummm, excuse me? if u suddenly moved to spain or watevr, wud u wanna have to know sanish before you could become a citizen? I dont think so. everyone else would try to be nice to you and understand you and you should do the same. if they are planning on living here, then they should learn english for their sake, not ours.
Talking about famous Irish writers, or Irish-born writers, how many of them actually spoke Irish? Did Oscar Wilde for example speak Irish?
From a British point of view, there was a time when multiculturalism was promoted and schools wer encouraged to employ teachers who could speak other languages than English. That is now gradually being phased out and English is coming back as the one and only language to be encouraged
oh my god becky tht is so awesome this website always has cool stuff to learn about
MissHeadOfRedAhhEEE! is quite clever I have to say. “Wicked” is used a lot by my friend Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter series.
It will be interesting to see if there is more or less of these regional words in use. I understand that in some non-english speaking countries, having more standardised language via media such as tv is responsible for destroying regional variations in language.
I’ve heard ‘wicked’ in PA and NY too. It must be catching on.
As an immigrant, I also grew up speaking and reading a different “first” language. I only attended Gr. 1 there and learned more about writing from my parents and other older family members after our arrival here. I also returned there to work, but also to learn more of my mother tongue. Some of its words have become part of the English standard language, just as words from other languages have: ‘jodhpurs’ from India; ‘laissez faire’ from French; ‘glasnost’ from Russian; ‘kimono’ from Japanese, etc. Most are words for which English had no exact translation.
I would say that probably most, if not all, languages have dialects, especially the large countries. When you consider it, British is also a language of immigrants. The first of those was Roman, though Viking, Dutch, German, Spanish and French were also influential. The more isolated the people, the less similar the language, or dialect, is to the rest of a country. I think it’s a pity that some languages are dying out. As was mentioned in one of the columns here a while ago, language can show how peoples’ minds work. If I’m correct it was a piece about directions. For me, that is one of the most fascinating aspects of language.
i candunk like crazy
I cannot us e your feature as it freezes on my iPad.
Good read. I think I listened to an interview about this book on NPR. I find this very interesting being a polyglot myself (Portuguese, Spanish, English). Most of the languages that can be found within the US such as Gullah and Menominee are becoming extinct due to the malleability of American English. I try to stress the importance of learning their native language to my cousins. Within language lies history and culture.
I agree w/ J My grandmother had to learn English in order to become a citizen yet still maintained Our Italian heritage by teaching her children that were born here Italian.
[...] http://hotword.dictionary.com/regionalenglish/ [...]
we say, in my school, you ratched! kind of as a playful insult all in good fun. it makes zero sence becasue that means deeply depressed but only about 2 people know that
you guys should try and get a hold of the lecture series on the history of language by john mcwharton, i believe, i may be wrong, published by the teaching company; you know they send you the mailer about lectures on dvd. anyway, he basically explains that language is so fluid and evolving that the distinction between a dialect and a language is very grey and mostly determined by human definition. linguisitically most scandanaivian “languages” are actually just dialects of one another, whereas, at least until relatively recently, italian “dialects” are so distinctive they should have been considered different languages if it weren’t for the nationalizing intervention of the new republic.
anyway, if it weren’t for us trying to define everything, bordering on neurotically, there wouldn’t even be “correct” spellings.
I love bein single but then I don’t
This is made for “POOE BOYS”
POOR sorry for spelling
native american language P.S. chowder is “chowdah” in Maine.
uhhhh that’s true. my cousins in ohio said “hella’ isnt a word but i told them it is in cal and they dont say nothin .
You will find “wicked good” fur lined slippers in the L.L.Bean catalog, from Mass. Not only are they truly “wicked good”, they’re wicked warm.
What happened to the previous blog which suggested that English was losing all of its words, with English words being killed off by the thousands?
Did somebody turn off the distress signal?
weelllll, did i miss somethin’? .. whas’ the answer to the original question?…
I saw wicked all the time and I live in PA <:
LOL i’m an idiot.
i need a man lol
I need a man too. or girl
and its called ur mom! lol jk
@the caitlyn lol funny
Every country’s different regions have variations of dialect, America is no different from any other country,
Here are all the different linguistic varieties
American English (AmE, AmEng, USEng)
African-American Vernacular English (AAVE)
New York Latino English
Pennsylvania Dutchified English
Hudson Valley English (Albany)
Lake Dialect or Lake Talk
Maine-New Hampshire English
New York City Dialect, Northern New Jersey Dialect (New York metropolitan area)
Inland Northern American English (includes western and central upstate New York)
Northeast Pennsylvania English (Scranton, Pennsylvania-area)
Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area Accent (D.C. Slang)
Hillbilly (mostly in the Appalachian areas of Virginia, West Virginia, and the Carolinas)
Inland North American (Lower peninsula of Michigan, northern Ohio and Indiana, the suburbs of Chicago, part of eastern Wisconsin and upstate New York)
North Central American English (primarily Minnesota, but also most of Wisconsin, the Upper peninsula of Michigan, and parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa)
Yooper dialect (the variety of North Central American English spoken in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and in some neighboring areas)
Midland American English
North Midlands English (thin swath from Nebraska to Ohio)
St. Louis dialect
South Midland (thin swath from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania)
Virginia Tidewater 
Coastal Southeastern (Charleston, South Carolina, Savannah, Georgia area)
Harkers Island English (North Carolina)
Southern Highland English
Florida Cracker Dialect
Gullah or Geechee
Yat (New Orleans)
Pacific Northwest English
Diversity CAN BE A POSITIVE Attrabute after all OUR country was founded “The Melting Pot of the World”…..
Proud to American no matter what dialectic territorial part of the country you live:)
thats nice to know
like this dummy lol just kidding
This reminds me of the time that I heard the word hearth pronounced ‘herth’, like ‘h’ and then ‘earth’. I was so confused because I pronounce the word ‘harth’. I still think that I am right, but some people say or pronounce things differently. I guess that their accent/dialect was just different.
Well according to subway it’s a sub and a grinder! I’ve only heard it be called a hoagie in a book.
What about Flapjacks and Pancakes or Soda and Pop? Before I moved from my birth state of California to Washington, I had never heard the word Pop in reference to Soda except on television.
Of course, most of the big differences have stayed East of a certain particular landmark of which I cannot remember quite as well as I ought to.
In the book Tuck Everlasting, they use flapjacks instead of pancakes