MARY: “Hi, I’m calling in response to the tweet about my favorite regionalism.”
That’s Mary. For a few months now, we’ve been asking you — our listeners — to send in your favorite regionalisms — little bits of speech used in some parts of the country, but not others. MARY: “although I no longer live there anymore I used to live in Rhode Island and a regionalism that I hated at first but have actually come to love is ‘side by each’ which a small population of Rhode Islanders use to to mean ‘side by side.’” “So anyway that’s my favorite regionalism and I’ve brought it with me out here to California and I’m trying to get it to catch on but it’s not really working.”
STEVE: “My name is Steve McGuire. I’m from Mashpee, Massachusetts. Mashpee is a little town on Cape Cod.”
“Wicked is probably the biggest one.” “We use wicked as an intensifier, so like, ‘That’s wicked good, that’s wicked bad.’ So it’ll just intensify whatever you want to pair it with. So there’s one pairing that you hear a lot in Boston, it’s kind of weird — it’s wicked pissah. Wicked pissah — it’s just another way to say wicked good, like, it’s a really good thing, wicked pissah, someone smacks a home run over the monster(?) you say it’s a wicked pissah.” “Hey man did you catch that game last night, that was a wicked pissah.”
VALERIE: “I’m Valerie Balester and I am from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.”
Davis (on tape): First, can you use this in a sentence?
VALERIE: ‘We’re gonna get lunch today, hey-na?’ ‘It’s hot out there today, hey-na?’ and they use that in northeastern Pennsylvania where Wilkes-Barre and Scranton are located.” “And it means, ‘isn’t that so?’”
Davis (on tape): HEY-NA… VALERIE: Heyna. Davis (on tape): H-A-Y? VALERIE: N-A? H-E-N-N-A?
So those were a few were regionalisms we heard while asking around about this particular phenomenon. Regionalisms are fun and all, yeah, but I’m sure you’re wondering why you should care. People say different things in different parts of the country. Okay. Whatever. But when I called Dr. Kirk Hazen at the University of West Virginia, he told me about a regionalism that illustrates why regional variations matter.
HAZEN: She has the sugars. It’s a term for diabetes and it’s pretty widely used in rural areas at least in West Virginia.
Kirk heads the West Virginia Dialect project, which tracks language variation in West Virginia and Appalac hia. “Sugars,” he says, is an example of a regionalism that isn’t just a funny difference in speech. It actually shows a major need in the medical community — to understand patients, even when they aren’t using textbook medical terms.
HAZEN: For those doctors the communication is absolutely crucial and the medical profession knows this. Part of that communication is knowing what the patients feel is wrong – understanding those terms – but also being able to relay to the patients in terms that they understand what’s going on.
Kirk says that for doctors, understanding regionalisms can make diagnosis and treatment easier when working patients across socioeconomic and cultural divides. Doctors, he says:
HAZEN: They’ve invested a good amount of time and money into improving communication between medical professionals and patients.
So regionalisms can have a profound effect on how we communicate. If you were a doctor who didn’t know about “the sugars,” or other regionalisms, you might not be able to treat your patients. But professional communication isn’t the only application of studying regional English. Kirk includes regional English in his classes, just so students can better understand that so-called nonstandard English is more common that we think. It’s not that some groups in some parts of the country talk funny — we all talk funny. People are different and those differences matter.
You may be familiar with the regional disparity on how we identify carbonated beverages — many people in the southern United States say “coke” for those types of drinks, regardless of the brand, and many in the north say “pop” or “soda.”
HAZEN: Those kinds of terms are very useful because you can talk to people about variation being out there and being OK that somehow one group isn’t drastically wrong
The “coke”/”pop” difference shows, in part, how pervasive the Coca Cola brand is throughout the south— the company was started in Atlanta, Georgia after all. Regionalisms like these can say a lot about who uses them — are they urban or rural; what’s popular in their region; what is their ethnic background? You look at enough regionalisms and you notice something that anyone studying language for a while will notice: people speak differently and there’s no one “correct” way to do it.
HAZEN: For any region out there there’s going to be in it ethnic variation social class variation and all kinds of other small matters of certain communities. Let’s say you have a group of rock climbers or you have people who are in a bridge club together there might have certain vocab items that they use specific to those activities.
But even then, bridge players in one part of the country may have different regionalisms than bridge players in another. Someone in Indiana might yell out:
ACTOR: “I’ll be hog wallered!”
after someone plays a good hand.
So how do we keep track of regional English? If we want to be aware of regionalisms, it would help to have a dictionary of sorts. Well, in the 1960s, linguistics researchers at Harvard University had that exact idea. After decades of surveying the country they created the Dictionary of American Regional English, or DARE.
HAZEN: So DARE is on its surface a dictionary but it’s a recording of the cultural heritage of many different places in the US and places that normally didn’t get documented through other means. So it is about the words but it’s also about childhood games that people used to play. There’s an entire realm of botany because of all the different names for plants that have been collected. It’s also a recording of sort of ethnic tensions and ethnic divisions in the country.
Kirk says he uses DARE in the classroom when he teaches about regionalisms, and a lot of the academic conversation about regional English includes DARE. I wanted to learn more, so I called up Joan Hall.
HALL: “I’m Joan Houston Hall, and I’m the chief editor emerita of the Dictionary of American Regional English.”
Joan has worked for DARE since 196something, when she started as a TITLE. After years of surveying, Joan says the team found that many regionalisms depend directly on immigration patterns.
HALL: “Here in Wisconsin, German settlers were very very common and their influence was very strong over a long period of time. People were speaking German as their first language and then as a second language. And so characteristics of contemporary Wisconsin English are reflective of that. So for instance people here will say, “Oh, let’s go by John’s.” They don’t mean they’re just going to drive on by, they mean they’re going to go to John’s and they’re going to stop and get out and say hello, because they’re using what’s called a calck(?) or a loan translation of the German word bei, which is not the same as our by but it sounds the same.”
Regionalisms are entrenched in their usage communities. Joan says that it’s common for new media — the internet — to make it seem like we’re all beginning to speak the same, that regionalisms are disappearing. The thinking goes that if we’re all communicating over the same medium where everyone from everywhere can tap into that communication, then we’ll all begin to use the same conventions and idioms.
HALL: “The fact is, that’s distinctly not true. We still have lots and lots of words and phrases that are characteristic of our own region and when they’re words that we’ve grown up with and used all our lives, we have no idea that other people don’t know what they mean.”
Language is not homogenizing, despite what you may see in the popular media. Some research even suggests that regional differences are only getting more distinct in the U.S., just like the numerous regional dialects in England. But even then, there are a few ways technology has affected our speech patterns.
HAZEN: In some ways it’s really easy to get a word – we have a brand new word that comes up from one coast to the other takes a few seconds to get it spread out. So in some ways you’re not going to find is that the same kind of regional divisions for let’s say terms of technology. If I have an iPhone the names for different things on it are going to be the same in the English speaking world, which it which wasn’t necessarily true for things like different words for fry pan back in the early 20th century.
Frying pan had so many regional variations because different regions used it in different ways.
HAZEN: Some places might have skillet some places might have a fry pan and some places might have, actually, spider because some of them had long black legs on them because they sat over the fire.
That’s all to say — as we often point out — language isn’t one monolithic thing. It changes with geography, time, technology, and culture, and really, a lot of other stuff as well. With language in North American becoming more regional, well, maybe it’s time to take a look DARE, which just a few years ago was put up in full online. We’ll link to it in the show notes.
Each entry in DARE tells a story — a story about history, about immigration, culture, technology, and I could go on. When we look at regionalisms, we’re looking at how these stories have been built into language, how our use of language can describe us, our cultures, and our history. Regionalisms can show us how other people are different from us, and can help us be okay and have fun with that difference, without becoming divided. Difference, it turns out, can be kind of fun, and that difference can help us better understand each other.
This has been an episode of Write Right, a production of the Texas A&M University Writing Center, a service of the Department of Undergraduate Studies. My name is Davis Land and I wrote and produced this episode. I had editorial help from Nancy Vazquez, Flo Davies, and Nick Cenegy. If you’re a Texas A&M Student we offer online and in person consultations about your papers, presentations, and anything else that involves communicating clearly. You can find us online at writingcenter.tamu.edu and on Twitter @tamuwc. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, and since it’s summer, we’ve installed a pool here at the Writing Center. [splash noise] Come take a swim!