Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Do you want to see regional English survive? So don’t I.

If there’s one thing that drove my Midwest mother crazy, it was the way New Englanders used expressions like “so don’t I” and “so aren’t I” to express agreement.

As in, your friend would say “I like ice cream,” and your answer would be “so don’t I,” rather than the grammatically proper “so do I,” or the more common/less formal “me, too.”

As in, your sister would say “I’m really hot,” and your answer would be “so aren’t I,” rather than that grammatically proper “so am I,” or the more common/less formal “me, too.”

My mother would argue that our usage made no sense.

To which our response was: so what?

It was just how we New Englanders rolled.

Just like we said “tonic” when others would say “soda” (or, as my Midwestern cousins would have it, “pop” – pronounced pahp). Alas, “tonic” has fallen out of New England favor, and even us old timers never use it anymore.


I don’t think people call rubber bands “elastics” anymore, either.

(Another sigh is heaved.)

And I suspect there aren’t many New Englanders under the age of 50 who know that a “bubbler” here is a “water fountain” anywhere else. Not that, thanks to bottled water, there are many “bubblers” around anymore. The only ones I can think of are a couple of old-timey stone ones in the Public Garden. No doubt these will be removed at some point, likely when some tourist’s kid, who doesn’t know enough not to put his mouth on the spout, will sue the City of Boston because of a canker sore.

I truly miss “bubbler”, which factors in a story in which I was the tourist.

The first time I traveled to San Francisco, in the early 1970’s, I was on Fishermen’s Wharf and asked someone whether there was a bubbler nearby.

She thought I was from England and that I was looking for a mailbox.

I’m all for being able to communicate clearly, but I really don’t want to see all regional differences go away.

(Don’t get me going on Macy’s replacing all the local department stores. Why couldn’t we just keep Jordan Marsh, and its fabulous blueberry muffins? Somewhere in Chicago, someone is lamenting that there’s no more Marshall Fields…)

Blame it on our national mobility, blame it on the chains (retail, dining, hotel), blame it on the media, blame it on the march of time, but all the little nuances that let us wake up in the morning knowing that we’re in Boston, or Tuscaloosa, or Fargo are dying out.

Oh, sure, they’re not gone yet.

There’ll always be NASCAR.

But even NASCAR has a toe-hold in New England.

So it’s interesting that while some regional differences seem to be getting stronger – gun ownership, church membership, etc. – the ones that actually make life interesting and not each others throats are withering away.

The good news is some folks out there has been keeping tabs on who says “so don’t I” an who calls a bubbler a bubbler.

Those folks are the University of Wisconsin, and – for the past 50 years – have been working on the Dictionary of American Regional English.

Between 1965 and 1970, English professor Frederic Cassidy sent field workers armed with a 1,600-question survey to interview and record people in more than a thousand far-flung communities. What were the local words for weather, household items, trees, courtship? Who called a “june bug” a “zoony bug” (answer: Georgians and Alabamans) or said “so don’t I” to mean “me too”? (Mostly New Englanders.) (Source: Boston Globe)

DARE knows that? So don’t I!

The good news is that their work been published:

Staffers compiled the information, along with quotations gleaned from printed materials, into what became six huge dictionary volumes, replete with maps and colorful quotations. Harvard University Press published the final volume, along with a complete multimedia digital edition, in 2013.

The not so good news is that the DARE folks are running out of funding, and still have a lot more things that they’re working on:

…the closure would halt other active projects — for starters, finding out how Americans speak now compared to in the 1960s. “The language changes, and we want to keep up with it,” Hall said. The team recently carried out a pilot project to duplicate Cassidy’s work in present-day Wisconsin. (They found online language surveys, while cheap, “didn’t get much participation;” old-fashioned face-to-face techniques still worked best.)

I know one thing that’s changed: people may have dropped their regionalisms, but they’re lobbing more f-bombs.

Another project they’re working on is developing ways to use the research, including creating the ability of others to use their data in their own apps.

“The one that is highest on my list is a medical app that would have thousands of regional and folk and archaic names for ailments and diseases.” An article in Harvard Medicine last fall cited a doctor in North Carolina who was initially flummoxed by a patient who said he’d “lost his nature.” It turned out to be localese for erectile dysfunction.

Must have been the only person in America who hasn’t seen the ads for ED medicine, and thus, if unwilling to utter the words “erectile dysfunction,” could have just uttered “ED”. Anyway, losing your nature must be even worse than a natural occurrence that lasts for more than four hours…

Just sayin’ (in my regional accent).

Meanwhile, the folks at DARE have mounted a GoFundMe campaign that’s limping along.

I threw them a few bucks.*

After all, what they’re doing is wicked pissah.

You know it, and so don’t I.


*Correction: I tried to make a donation. The page must not like Chrome. If I think of it, I’ll try again later.

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