An American linguistic archive has been documenting the ‘speechways of the folk’ for nearly 100 years

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Interviewer: I’d like to begin with your pronunciation. This is what month of the year?

Farmer: March

Interviewer: And last month was?

Farmer: February.

Patrick Cox: We’re in a house — a farmhouse — in the dead center of Illinois.

Farmer: Many people pronounce that February different from what I’ve always heard it pronounced: “Feberary,” “Febuary.” I don’t know how they get that kind of Uh on that U.

Patrick Cox: It’s 1960. The man being questioned is a retired farmer. The man asking the questions is a linguist. He asks the farmer question after question: about months, days, the weather, the rooms in the house, the furniture.

Interviewer: This is what?

Farmer: Davenport — what they call them nowadays.

Interviewer: What did they used to call them?

Farmer: Well, mostly they were different types of furniture. They call them a cot — a sofa.

Patrick Cox: The minutes tick by. By the third hour, the line of questioning has moved on to farm animals.

Interviewer: We could have a little fun here, if you like. I’d like to hear you call the cows from pasture.

Patrick Cox: If you didn’t catch that, the linguist is asking the farmer to show him how he calls the cows from pasture.

Farmer: Well, I don’t want my voice to do it anymore or not.

He makes the call

Farmer: Animals all have more sense than most people give them credit to have, and they learn those things and you don’t want to fool them very many times where they won’t answer you. Cows don’t have any bad habits. And here is the idea. You know, breeding animals, it’s just like raising kids and people. Parents have a nasty temper. They can’t blame their kids if they have one.

Patrick Cox: I’ve listened to quite a few of these interviews. They’re part of a survey that’s been going on for nearly a century. And there is a moment in a lot of them that’s like this, usually quite a ways in…..when it’s like a switch is flipped. No more short, one-sentence answers. Instead, the person being interviewed just talks. And as you listen, I hear that person’s life just opening before me.

Interviewer: How about pigs?

Farmer: Well, piggy.

He makes the call

Farmer: I don’t know. You don’t have to say that. That’s just a common word. I could go out there and clap my hands good and loud. And if they come feed them the next time they get home from that clapping hand, just the same. Horses you can. You can call horses have a way of calling them and call them by name loud enough so they can hear you.

Interviewer: How would you make the horses go a little faster, what would you say?

Farmer: Giddup! Come on! All depends on how you train a horse. Whatever you say.I’d call this one, his name was Roxie. I’d say “Come on, Roxie! Come on, I want you!” Well, he’d start moseying along, you know.

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: Stories about languages and the people who speak them. In this episode, The Linguistic Atlas Project. The story of how a group of researchers set about documenting the speech of ordinary Americans. How their definition of ordinary, and their definition of American changed.

Patrick Cox: In 1929, an organization called the American Dialect Society decided to launch a survey of the dialects of American English. There were similar surveys underway in France, Italy and elsewhere, and the American linguists wanted to keep up with their European colleagues. They also had a nagging concern, which continues to this day: that dialects were vanishing before they could be documented. Words and phrases — American-born words and phrases — were flying out of the windows of these farmhouses and other places and evaporating without a trace. So the people who ran the American Dialect Society, they decided it was time to act.

Allison Burkette: They wanted to collect the “speechways of the folk.”

Patrick Cox: The “speechways of the folk.” The way ordinary Americans expressed themselves, from sea to shining sea.

Allison Burkette: And so they wanted to in some ways preserve the folk speech that perhaps they thought was starting to disappear. And so it was kind of both a, I don’t know, a labor of love to save something that might, might be disappearing, but also a genuine academic inquiry into the English that was used in the United States to match the stuff that was being done in Europe.

Patrick Cox: This is Allison Burkette. She’s a professor of linguistics at the University of Kentucky and the current director of the Linguistic Atlas Project. The project began with interviews in New England. It gradually spread down the east coast, and then migrated inland. The researchers collected their material by going to people’s homes.

Allison Burkette: Most of the time it was a matter of what we would now call a cold call. I mean, somebody driving up to somebody’s farm and knocking on the door and explaining the project, explaining what they were interested in and just hoping somebody would be willing to give that much of their time.

Patrick Cox: And if you were one of those door-knocking researchers, you’d be requesting that people spend a lot of time with you.

Allison Burkette: You’re asking if you can spend six to eight hours talking to them, asking them questions.

Patrick Cox: Wait, six to eight hours?

Allison Burkette: Six to eight hours. And a lot of the people that they interviewed, especially the early ones, were older people. They erred on the side of, you know, talking to, I’m going to say people over the age of 60 for these initial interviews.

Sound of interview: “There appeared to be a blacksmith’s shop at the side of the road.”

Allison Burkette: They did have the phonograph recording device in the early 1930s, which is when the very first interviews were done, but they were not in any way what we would consider portable now and what we’ve been able to figure out is there are probably two people doing the interviewing, one running the sound.

Patrick Cox: It’s like bringing a massive, great studio into someone’s home.

Allison Burkette: Yeah, usually into someone’s kitchen. I think a lot of the interviews took place, you know, in the back of the house and the less formal area of the kitchen.

Patrick Cox: The quality of the recordings got better of course, and the questions set by the dialecticians became more rigorous. This is from an interview in the early 1960s.

Interviewer: The place– this is the first floor and then the second floor and the–

Subject: Attic.

Interviewer: Never called it a garret?

Subject: Well, I’ve heard the word but we never used it.

Patrick Cox: The questions were designed to get people to give their pronunciation of a specific word. Or they were designed to get the person to offer up a particular piece of vocabulary for something.

Allison Burkette: And so, for instance, they could ask something like, “What do you call the piece of furniture in your bedroom that has drawers where you keep socks and underwear?”

Interviewer: The place where you’d store your socks and underclothes and shirts you might put them in the..?

Subject: Dresser. The first term I heard for that, one my mother used was bureau. Later on, we called it a chiffonier, chifforobe.

Interviewer: They’re all the same?

Subject: Well, chiffonier was usually a little taller.

Allison Burkette: I would call it a chest of drawers. That’s what I grew up calling it. A lot of people said dresser, bureau. But they also said things like sideboard or high boy.

Patrick Cox: And the more the Linguistic Atlas spread geographically, the answers became more varied. But even in the 1960s the vast majority of people being interviewed — and for that matter, the interviews — were white males. Retired, white men who lived on farms or in small towns.

That was about the change. More after the break.

Patrick Cox: OK, if you’ve been listening this season, you’ll know that we at Subtitle have a new newsletter. Every other week — if you subscribe, it’s totally free — you’ll find a fun and informative little missive in your inbox. We pick out our favorite language-related stories in the news. We have sneak peeks of upcoming episodes. And we tell you about words from other languages we think really ought to be in English. Words like schadenfreude. That was new to English once. Each edition of our newsletter is a five-minute read. Subscribe at our website.

Interviewer: OK, today is Wednesday. Tuesday was..?

Subject: Yesterday.

Interviewer: Thursday is..?

Subject: Tomorrow.

Interviewer: You need to fix your hair, you comb it. Then you…

Subject: Brush it.

Patrick Cox: This interview begins pretty much the same way as the earlier ones. But this isn’t a farmhouse. It’s Chicago. And it’s a woman being interviewed, a Black woman. This was in 1964, at the very start of an effort The Linguistic Atlas Project only formally adopted a decade later — an effort to expand the demographic diversity of its interviewees, or informants, as they called them. The questions quickly move on from days of the week and personal grooming to cover startlingly new territory.

Interviewer: If a mother is going to punish a child, she’d say “I’m going to…”

Subject: Whip you.

Interviewer: If someone told you you had to register to vote, you’d say. “We know about that. In fact…”

Subject: We were going to do it.

Interviewer: If someone was accusing– trying to find out who had committed some theft and you wanted to clear yourself, you’d say, no…

Subject: I didn’t. He did. He stole it.

Interviewer: If he was still trying to tell you your guilt, you’d say..

Subject: It wasn’t me.

Allison Burkette: I can tell you what’s going on there.

Patrick Cox: This is Allison Burkette again, director of the Linguistic Atlas Project. She says the people behind the project back then added what they called an “urban supplement” to the original questionnaire.

Allison Burkette: And they asked just these horrible questions. I found the copy — I mean, I don’t know why they weren’t all burned — but I found a copy of the urban supplement, and it’s awful. It’s direct questions about, you know, crime in your neighborhood, which seems very pointed towards minority informants. Yeah. So they tried to do an urban supplement, I think, to balance out the fact that the people would not have the information about calls to cows and things like that — just to try and get, a longer interview with information. So what apparently, the field workers thought would be those people’s day to day lives, which apparently was registering to vote and dealing with crime.

Patrick Cox: So that interview in Chicago, despite the weird and awkward questions, it actually turned out okay. The woman had one of those moments that I was talking about before, where she just launches into a monolog, and there’s no stopping her. And thank goodness too, because it’s by far the most revealing and moving bit. I’m not going to play it all, but here’s an edited version. She’s talking about where she grew up and lived before moving to Chicago.

Subject: You know, I lived in Harrisburg and that’s in Mississippi. It’s a very small town. Population, I think, is about 28,000 people. And we lived down in the corner, a little house with red brick sidings on it, and it had two big oak trees in the yard. But anyway, this place is a small town. Everybody knows everybody and they call it the hub of the South Most of the streets are not paved. You know, in the Negro section of town. In the white section it is very beautiful and everything: they have azaleas and camellias and all sorts of flowers and things because it’s warm, you see. And most of the people there, they raise what they eat, you know, because it’s a small place, you can have a garden. And I really love the place because I miss, you know, the good southern food that you feel when you feel home, you know, smoked ham and you have smoked sausage and the green vegetables, tomatoes, okra, collard greens and green onions and radishes and just everything. You know, southern people are very good cooks. And I miss my neighbors because they’re so neighborly. Everybody knows everybody. Anybody could live in Mississippi becasue it’s warm. You don’t have to worry about the snow and things like that. In April, everything is so beautiful. The flowers, the trees are all green and everything, and it’s just wonderful.

Patrick Cox: The people who ran the The Linguistic Atlas Project did right things over the years. They updated their questionnaires, they trained the field workers. And there are many more people from cities, more women, more immigrants, more people whose first language isn’t English. All that is represented in the reel-to-reel tapes, the cassettes, the digital recordings that Allison Burkette and her staff look after — and occasionally add to — at the University of Kentucky.

Allison Burkette: If the initial purpose was to collect the speechways of the folk, I think that what you would say about the purpose now is that the Atlas is a collection of the variation that you find in language and languages spoken in the United States. And so it’s about taking a look at that variation and figuring out what it means. I mean, are there regional differences? But at the same time, now there’s more interest in the social stuff. You know, how are people expressing their identities in terms of being from a particular place? How is that idea of place or home created by language during these interviews? Like, we’re interested in a lot more different kinds of stuff that you can still get from these same interviews. You can still get it from the old interviews. You can hunt some of that stuff down and you can hear people, you know, creating a sense of place in the way that they talk. And so in some ways, in some ways, it’s very much the same. And in some ways, I guess the interests have broadened.

Patrick Cox: The more recent interviews are, of course, better recorded. They’re shorter, and altogether easier to manage — frankly to turn into a podcast episode. But to be honest, they’re less interesting. Not just because the turns of phrases you hear are less arresting, more familiar. It’s the other stuff. In the recordings from 60 or 70 years ago, the lives of those people, their worlds — they are so removed from ours. For one thing, those people are all dead. Some of the things they said are no longer said. But because of the technology, because we can hear them, because we can imagine them answering questions in their own homes — because they speak versions of English, however strange-sounding, are perfectly intelligible — becasue of all of that it brings them closer to us.

Patrick Cox: Huge thanks to Allison Burkette who has spent so much time helping with this episode. Thanks to others at the Linguistic Atlas Project, namely Lamont Antieau, Crissandra George and Katia Davis. Also to the University of Kentucky College of Arts & Sciences. And at the Library of Congress, Charles Hosale and Judith Gray. Special thanks to Grant Barrett of the American Dialect Society and host of the radio show and podcast, A Way with Words. Grant put me onto this story a long time ago. I’m very grateful. Last but not least, even though they won’t hear it, a big thanks to all the people who agreed to be interviewed for the Linguistic Atlas Project. Although they remain anonymous, their thoughts and words are recorded.

And by the way, if you know of any words or phrases within your own family, or your home town or neighborhood, that you’ve wondered where they come from, let us know. We’ll ask the people at the Linguistic Atlas Project if they’ve come across those words. Send us an email.

Tina Tobey is our sound designer. Allison Shao manages our newsletter and social media. Please rate and review Subtitle wherever you listen. It’s great to get feedback– and those ratings and reviews help others find us. And even if do that, don’t let it stop you from telling your friends about us. Tell your enemies too. Maybe you’ll all become Subtitle frenemies.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub & Spoke audio collective. We’re a bunch of podcasters who’re all dedicated to telling stories about stuff that you’re not going to come across most anywhere else. Here’s one of the other Hub & Spoke podcasts: The Briny, which tells stories about the sea — our love for it, our fear for it, and many other things too. Listen to the episode about a woman who tries to overcome her anxiety about shark attacks by competing in an ocean swim.

Thanks for listening. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

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