By Edwin Smith
Normally, anyone wishing to view the Linguistic Atlas of New England would have to travel to Amherst, Mass., but the files have temporarily found their way to the University of Mississippi Department of Modern Languages.
The 80-year-old papers are the oldest documents in the Linguistic Atlas Project, a set of survey research projects about the words and pronunciation of everyday American English, the largest project of its kind in the country. Started in 1929, the LAP has done interviews with thousands of native speakers all over the U.S.
“The UM LAP Outpost has arranged to borrow the LANE files from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in order to digitize them,” said Allison Burkette, associate professor of linguistics and assistant editor of the LAP project. “UMass had no plans to do so, so we asked if we could be given the chance to make digital images of these papers.”
The LANE materials represent the oldest of the LAP surveys. They are the worksheets and list manuscripts collected in the early 1930s under the direction of project founder Hans Kurath. These paper records contain the oldest recorded U.S. dialect survey data and are in need of preservation via digitization.
“It is not hard to see why the work has taken so long when each survey informant spends hours in conversation with a field worker, talking about common topics like family, the weather, household articles and activities, agriculture and social connections, totaling over 800 topics in most regions,” Burkette said.
“Before tape recorders, each response was recorded by highly-trained field workers in detailed phonetic script (the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA) to preserve the pronunciation. Audio recordings later allowed phonetic transcription in the office rather than in the field.”
The regional surveys have revealed a tremendous wealth of language variation in American English, both in vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. A large part of the continental U.S. has been surveyed, including all states east of the Mississippi, but most of the results of the interviews have not been published in an accessible way.
LANE comprises approximately 61,000 pages of material. Preliminary testing indicates that individual scans take about three minutes, so completion of LANE digitization is projected to take about 1,220 hours.
The opportunity to digitize such a rare collection is a major coup for the university, said to Jennifer Ford, head of special collections and associate professor.
“The temporary removal of such an important collection in the field of linguistics from Massachusetts to our institution is an extraordinary step taken by another archives,” Ford said. “It reveals the great trust the archival curators and the linguistics community as a whole have in work and professionalism of Dr. Burkette. The digitization of these early records will be a huge boon to the scholarly world.”
Donald Dyer, chair of modern languages and professor of Russian and linguistics, praised Burkette for her achievements.
“The Department of Modern Languages is very proud to house for a limited amount of time this cherished collection of dialect materials and to be a part of this important project,” Dyer said. “I know Dr. Burkette and her students will make important use of these materials and that in digitalized form, they will be critically valuable for future research.”