Date: Thu, 12 Mar 1998 01:53:25 -0600
From: Mike Salovesh t20mxs1[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU
Subject: Re: Dialect geography (WAS: GREASY/GREAZY)

frank abate wrote:

Carol Andrus said:

I got a really interesting film about
American language, I think it was from the FBI. It said: that a person who
had been raised for the first 10-12 years in one place in the US could be
identified within 150 miles of that place of origin by his/her speech.
There was a list of words to read. It gave examples of: greasy/greazy;
marry/Mary/merry; adult/adult; those are a few I remember. I put this in
because of greasy/greazy, which triggered my memory.


I'd be interested to know if the FBI (if it was them) still uses dailect
geography as evidence, and whether this stemmed from Labov's work.

Anyone know? Is there a list of "shibboleth" words that still works in
determining place of origin?

Frank Abate
OUP US Dictionaries

The work came from Henry Lee Smith, not Labov. It's an impressive
stunt, but really just a simple exercise in dialect geography. There's
no reason to think it couldn't be done today using just about the same
distinctive sets of words Smith used, perhaps with minor modifications.

Back in the 1940s, Smith had a radio program called "Where are you
from?" On the program, he would hand a written list of twenty sets of
words to a guest, who would be asked to read them. Smith would then try
to determine where the guest had learned to speak English. (Notice that
I said "determine", not "guess". He was using truly diagnostic items
based on good dialect geopgraphy.) In puzzling cases he used an item or
two from a short list of supplementary words, as I recall.

Most of the time, Smith would come within 50 (not 150) miles of the
place where Englilsh was learned. For most cities east of the
Mississippi, he was able to zero in on specific neighborhoods.
Sometimes he would get stuck and have to specify a line on a map
(example: a line from Indianapolis, Indiana to Columbus, Ohio) and say
that the guest came from within 50 miles of that line. (The line,
obviously, would be an isogloss line marking a major dialect boundary.
My example was not chosen casually: there's a dialect boundary somewhere
close to that general line.)

Smith had his greatest success with those who had lived in one U.S.
locality for the first dozen years of life or so, but he sometimes was
able to point to origins for people who had moved from their original
dialect area to another.

"Where are you from?" moved to TV, in the early years when programs were
broadcast live to local audiences only. In a process called "Kinescope",
the local broadcast would be recorded off air on movie film. The
duplicated films were then moved physically to stations in other parts
of the country for later broadcast. For all I know, some of those
Kinescopes may still be archived somewhere. Smith also made a series of
16 mm. educational films on linguistics and dialect geography. (In the
films, he looked and sounded amazingly like Jack Lemmon.) I'll bet that
the "FBI" film was either out of Smith's film series or an old Kinescope
of his program.

I don't remember much of Smith's list, either, but I agree with Carol
Andrus that it
included greasy/greazy and marry/merry/Mary. (I'm not sure about
"adult".) Another set included cot/caught (with "bought" in there
somewhere); I remember "dog" as a stray item from the list, too.

To illustrate the general principles, look at the "marry/merry/Mary"
set. West of the Appalachian mountains those are homonyms. To the
east, the distribution gets complex; at its most differentiated, the set
is consistently pronounced as three phonemically distinct words. Those
who have two distinct pronunciations usually distinguish Mary from the
other two. I've forgotten the exact distribution pattern, but the words
associated with the three spellings neatly subdivide the territory from
Pennsylvania up through Maine into a diagnostsic checkerboard.

I met Haxey Smith around 1957, or perhaps a little later. "Where are
you from?" was but a memory by then, but he still carried a card in his
wallet containing his test sets. At a cocktail party (associated with a
meeting of LSA), he was prevailed upon to give a demonstration -- which
he did, beautifully, until he handed me the card.
I was strictly honest in my reading; he concluded that I spoke
Bloomfield's SAM
(Standard Average Midwestern English) but could not zero in much closer
than that.
That was no surprise: from about age 8 through when I was 15, I had a
series of voice coaches, singing teachers, and "elocution" teachers
working on converting me from normal human speech to Formal Platform
English and/or Singers' Standard. They pretty much succeeded, and I
never fully recovered.

That's a terrible affliction. My wife says I sound like I'm delivering
a lecture when I think I'm making love talk in bed. (Luckily, she
thinks that's endearing.
Some of the time.)

-- mike salovesh salovesh[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]
anthropology department
northern illinois university PEACE !!!