Michael Adams, the author of Slang: The People’s Poetry (which I reviewed here), has an excellent essay in Humanities, Words of America: A Field Guide, about the history and originality of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), whose fifth and final volume is expected to appear in March 2012. Adams starts by giving a nice example of polysemy:
According to this dictionary, a Wisconsin native may know a flower called a maybell, and so may a Michigander, but if they talk flora over a drink in Chicago, it may take awhile before they realize they are, in a sense, speaking different tongues. In Wisconsin, maybell means ‘lily of the valley’; in Michigan, it means ‘marsh marigold.’ The dictionary knows this because fieldworkers surveyed Wisconsin speakers with the question, “What are other names in your locality for the lily of the valley?” and Michigan speakers with the question, “What do you call the bright yellow flowers that bloom in clusters in marshes in early springtime?” Maybell was an occasional answer, a word some of us share that nonetheless underscores differences in how we know and name the world around us.
He goes on to describe the beginnings of DARE, undertaken by Frederic G. Cassidy, who was appointed editor in 1962, and then the history and importance of such projects in general:
Calvin Thomas observed the central role of dialect or, more broadly, variation in language structure and history: “Most persons are prone to look upon these variations simply as the errors of the ignorant—‘bad grammar’ to be avoided, ‘bad usage’ to be suppressed. The truth is, however, that these variations represent one of the most important groups or classes of facts on which the scientific study of language rests.” The significance of dialects was established long before the founding of ADS, by the New Philology of Rasmus Rask, Franz Bopp, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and others in the early nineteenth century. That movement initiated comparative historical linguistics, which articulated relations among extensive language families beginning with Indo-European. William Dwight Whitney, one of the founders of ADS, was America’s preeminent representative of this discipline at the time.
Dialectology thus developed alongside historical comparative philology and historical lexicography. In 1876, Georg Wenker (1852–1911) sent a set of forty passages of literary German to some 50,000 schoolteachers and asked them to translate them into the local dialect. Nearly all the teachers responded (44,251), and Wenker plotted some of the data onto maps in Sprachatlas das Deutschen Reichs, the first linguistic atlas, published in 1881. ….
He describes the Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada, an “immediate and significant influence on DARE,” and the differences between them:
But even more effective mapping cannot quite bring linguistic geography down to a human scale. As Louise Pound concluded, “Workers for the American Atlas record with scholarly vigilance the speech of the regions they canvass, endeavoring to preserve faithfully for posterity our twentieth-century regional distinctions; yet their results are no substitute for an exhaustive dialect dictionary.” That is because, as Jacob Grimm put it, “every word has its history and lives its own life,” a sentiment that leads inevitably to a historical dictionary. As Cassidy acknowledged, “It should be obvious that the model for DARE was the Oxford English Dictionary, with some innovations, chiefly the use of maps and oral data specially gathered throughout the country in a single five-year period.” The modesty of “some innovations” belies the importance of the maps and oral data.
And the differences from other dictionaries:
Another feature that sets DARE apart is its unprecedentedly pluralist approach to evidence. The OED and some related dictionaries rely almost exclusively on quotations from printed texts. Their entries have a certain sheen; differences among sources are subtle. In the English Dialect Dictionary, Wright relied on material collected by the English Dialect Society and his own field research, but not on printed sources. While the texture of entries in Wright’s dictionary is different from that of OED entries, it similarly offers readers a “smooth” reading experience.
By contrast, DARE entries have a homespun texture, demanding more of a reader, who must reconcile various types of information in order to understand what DARE has to say about a word or phrase. But if they pay attention, readers come away marvelously informed. A DARE entry might include any combination of quotations from regional literature, diaries, small-town newspapers, material from WELS, the various linguistic atlases (published and unpublished), other accounts of dialect in scholarly literature, substantial personal collections donated to the project by scholars at the ends of their careers (like the Gordon Wilson collection, from which DARE illustrated dew poison), and, of course, questionnaire responses, identified by informant, so that the curious reader can refer to the “List of Informants” to discover his or her community, community type, year of birth, level of education, occupation, sex, and race—all types of information that can be overlooked in other historical dictionaries, but not in a twenty-first-century Dictionary of American Regional English.
He finishes with the stirring peroration: “Whatever transformative project in the humanities you may have in mind, dare to do it.” (If, that is, you can find the funding in these penurious times…)