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(Still) Groping for Words: Usage and Slang Guides, Revisited: Regional and Ethnic Variety

by Edwin L. Battistella

Regional and Ethnic Variety

For American dialect usage, the two indispensable works are the two-volume Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles, edited by Mitford Mathews, and Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), begun by the late Frederic Cassidy. The former was completed in 1951 (an abridged edition appeared in 1966) and offers much useful older material. The six-volume DARE was completed under the editorship of Joan Houston Hall and is based on both the written record (diaries, letters, and newspapers) and more than a thousand interviews carried out between 1965 and 1970. DARE is unique in that many of the entries include maps as well as pronunciation, definition, etymology, and citation; a supplement including the bibliography, additional maps, and other material was published after the final volume of the sequence. Those interested in the variants and etymology of such American dialect usages as “lutefisk,” “on the fritz,” and “roller bird” will find DARE the place to look. Harvard University Press also offers a digital DARE by subscription; it includes audio, interactive maps, and other features. For differences between American and British dialects, John Algeo’s British or American English? is an impressive dictionary of the ways in which British English differs from American; the volume is organized by part of speech and documented with citations and frequencies from various corpora. More accessible and more entertaining is Lynne Murphy’s The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship between American and British English, which offers well-researched explorations of the inferiority and superiority complexes of American and British speakers of English. An American linguist living in England since 2000, Murphy both explores the differences and explodes myths about which words came from which side of the Atlantic.

The literature on the history and syntax of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is rich, though one finds much less in the way of dictionaries. Some older historical works are valuable, for example, Lorenzo Dow Turner’s Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect and Cab Calloway’s “The New Hepster’s Dictionary: Language of Jive,” the latter privately printed in 1944 and available as an appendix in Of Minnie the Moocher & Me, by Calloway and Bryant Rollins. First published in 1970 as Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang, edited by Clarence Major, is fine, but its title/subtitle and approach reinforce the misperception that AAVE is just slang. Worthy of special note is Geneva Smitherman’s Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner, which treats some of the everyday lexicon of the African American experience—words of the home, church, and neighborhood as well as the street. The Oxford Handbook of African American Language, edited by Sonja Lanehart, is the best comprehensive resource, with forty-eight chapters covering all aspects of African American language. For discussion of the nuances of educational and historical issues surrounding African American language, John McWhorter’s Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths about America’s Lingua France is invaluable. Excellent online resources for AAVE can be found at the University of Oregon’s Online Resources for African American Language (ORAAL), which includes a “Corpus of Regional African American Language” and, under “Research Resources,” an extensive bibliography of African American language research. Also valuable is Neal Hutcheson, Danica Cullinan, and Walt Wolfram’s documentary film Talking Black in America.

American history has made AAVE the most consequential ethnic variety of English, but demographic trends are making Spanish-English blending ever more significant. The main resource for this blend is Ilan Stavans’s Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language.  In a fine introductory essay, Stavans examines Spanish-language lexicography and Spanish in the United States, noting the similarity of Spanglish to both AAVE and Yiddish—and comparing all three to jazz. The glossary includes nearly 6,000 entries—from abajar (to descend) to zumear (to zoom)—and provides pronunciation, part of speech, gender, translation, Spanish or English root, and the occasional illustrative sentence. Many entries are pan-Latino, some are marked for their national or geographic origin, and about 10 to 15 percent are cyber-Spanglish, e.g., forwardear (to forward) and el maus (the mouse).