The Closing of DARE.

I’ve posted a number of times about the Dictionary of American Regional English (e.g., on its completion and on the Fieldwork Recordings); now, sadly, I must write about the shutdown of the entire project, as reported by one of LH’s favorite lexicographers, Jesse Sheidlower, for the New Yorker. After introducing DARE and describing its many excellences (William Safire called it “the most exciting new linguistic project in the twentieth century”), Sheidlower gets to the bad news:

DARE was primarily supported by grants, especially from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation. In recent years, small individual donations played an increasing role in the project’s funding. The institutional donors pretty much felt that they did their job to get the dictionary to “Z.” The publicity from the completion of the main text led to an influx of enough money to finish Volume VI, which included maps and indices, but that was it. In the last few years, the staff applied for additional grants to update and add new entries; these failed to materialize. Squeaking by on royalties and individual gifts, and with several editors working on a volunteer basis, the dictionary was able to publish some quarterly updates, but by the beginning of the coming year, it will be necessary to lay off the staff.

Now the hundreds of boxes of files are going into the University of Wisconsin archives, after some last-minute work to insure that the most important records are indexed properly. Editors will try to keep some visibility—continuing to do radio interviews, for example—but this will also be on a mostly volunteer basis.

DARE will probably prove to be the last major dictionary based on personal fieldwork, as more modern techniques take over. By creating an interesting survey and getting people to complete it online, you can get a lot of data. This was the method of the Harvard Dialect Survey, a set of a hundred and twenty-two questions created by the linguist Bert Vaux, who is now at Cambridge University. When the Times created an interactive quiz based on the data, in 2013, its story “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk” became its highest-traffic piece of the entire year, despite being published on December 21st—demonstrating just how fascinated people remain about their local speech.

And instead of any method of studying the speech of individuals, the most modern thing of all is corpus analysis: taking billions of words of text—from geotagged posts on Twitter, from online regional newspapers—and running them through elaborate statistical processing. The computational linguist Jack Grieve uses this approach to generate maps revealing truths about language that no one had—or, for that matter, could have—noticed before. This is probably the direction that future research will take; it’s relatively inexpensive and yields fascinating results that dramatically add to our understanding of language. But one can’t help feeling that it’s a shame to take the words out of the mouths of their speakers.

A shame indeed. But at least we have the dictionary itself.

Comments

  1. And the DARE website, which I hope is not shutting down as well.

  2. Very sad. I hope archive.org are in contact with them just in case.

  3. At least the DARE dictionary finished. Modern Greek’s dialect dictionary started publishing in the 1930s, and has just hit epsilon. (And it’s the first new volume in 30 years.)

  4. But archive.org is static: search boxes are shown but don’t work, and URLs at daredictionary.com are not guessable. During the long drought after bartleby.com dropped their AHD4 and before AHD5 came out on its own web site, it was still possible, with some trickery, to use the search page at Bartleby, which for some reason had not been shut down with the content pages. But that was only a fluke; nothing of the kind will be possible here, and if the web site is closed, that’s it.

    However, access to all of the site except a few samples are available only at US$49 for individuals and unrevealed costs for institutions, and perhaps that will be enough to keep the lights on in the server room.

  5. Lars (the original one) says:

    The wayback machine at web.archive.org is static as you say and has spotty coverage in places, but if the Internet Archive takes an active interest in the online version of DARE as a published work I’m sure it can find a server to run the search backend on. (If DARE releases the code and data, of course).

  6. Yes, I was thinking more of a special project rather than the Wayback Machine. Archive.org’s software library initiative shows that they’re not opposed to inventing new interfaces when they have new stuff to make available, and the management there hates information that was once online vanishing for good. The problem would be permissions, of course… Let’s just hope the existing site stays up, I guess!

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