Google “Old Tools, New Users” and you will find a host of innovative ideas for how to recycle old rakes, hammers, screwdrivers, clamps and even the toolboxes that once held some of those things you no longer use. These sites offer new life for our favorite old (but now unused) implements by giving them updated roles in our updated lives. I don’t need this old (but cool-looking) rake but I do need someplace to hang my scarves and necklaces. Voilà! Problem solved. I don’t need these extra hammers, but they could do a great job holding up my i-Pad.
Just like old rakes, hammers, and pitchforks, old linguistic tools have been repurposed by DIY adventurers, and their new uses have multiplied on the web. For example, a dialect survey created in 1930’s by the linguist Hans Kurath has become widely known via internet-mediated social circles. This survey includes two parts: a list of words to read aloud, to illustrate how you say them (including Water, Crayon, Caramel, Syrup, Pecan & New Orleans), and a list of prompts to elicit what locals call certain items (For example, “How do you address a group of people?”). The original purpose of this survey was to gather data that could be used to construct Regional Linguistic Atlases. And Kurath created several of these, in multiple volumes, using his survey and careful statistical mapping to characterize local dialects of the United States.
Just over a year ago, a version of Kurath’s survey reappeared as a modified and internet-ready “Dialect quiz” in the New York Times, How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk.
Rather than using this quiz to create regional dialect maps, the NYTimes quiz offered to indicate “where you’re from.” Many people I know took the New York Times quiz at least one time, and declared astonishment as to its accuracy. But others also took it several times, playing the part of people from places they had lived at some point in their life. Others laughed at its extreme inaccuracy–like an Australian friend who was identified as from Yonkers. People were using the tool and relishing it, but instead of using it to pinpoint regional variety, the new use seemed to foment talk about mobility. Discussions like, “When I lived in Atlanta… but in Chicago…”
Another re-tooled version of Kurath’s dialect survey surfaced before the NYT “Dialect Quiz,” and circulated through Tumblr and YouTube as the “Accent Challenge” or “Accent Tag.” There are now thousands of Accent Challenge videos posted on YouTube. These performances illuminate features of English in today’s world that could never have been predicted by Kurath as he and his research assistants traversed the States with their trusty notebooks and gigantic recording devices.
English that Includes Korean: One accent challenger, featuring what she calls a “Konglish” approach, reads through word list and prompts twice: Once, as she would say things when she is with her Korean friends and again, as she would talk with her American friends (see previous Post).
English Around the World: The accent challenge videos go far beyond Kurath’s boundaries of the United States, including Jamaica, Australia, New Zealand, and dozens of finely divided regions of Ireland, Scotland, and England.
English and Exchange Students: Some accent challengers have even used the survey as a way to compare the different varieties of foreign accented English—and comparisons of the differences between Swiss, German, and Italian speakers.
Stories of Language Use: Almost all accent challengers take their time with the survey, prefacing the reading of the list with long stories of how they grew up speaking certain ways and with whom, and interrupting their survey with asides that add to their story.
All of these Accent Challengers (and there are many more varieties) display an awareness of their own and others’ speech that Kurath could never have fathomed or welcomed, as he set out to document the unmonitored, regional speech of rural folk.
Now, working with teens in high school English classes, I’ve had them develop their own New and Improved Accent Challenge, to explore language around them. They’ve devised new word lists and prompts that depart from the standardized goals of Kurath, to ask peers, parents and locals about more contemporary local language distinctions. Instead of asking “What do you call a small bug that rolls into a ball when touched?” for example, they’ll ask “What do you call the dairy dessert that comes from a machine?” since the distinction between those who say “soft serve” and “custard” appeals more to them (as citizen researchers) than the name of a roly-poly.
Most old tools probably did their job well. Rustically beautiful rakes and hammers remind us of simpler times, while lending a hand in our modern homes. The new role of linguistic tools can also bring to mind a simpler communicative time and simultaneously illuminate some features of our updated communicative world. Repurposed and in the hands of citizen sociolinguists, Kurath’s old survey does not lead to several more pounds-worth of bound volumes of linguistic detail, but instead, it builds awareness and sparks dialog about complex forms of linguistic diversity. The conversations brought on by these repurposed linguistic tools go beyond “roly-poly” or “custard” and “soft-serve,” building awareness of linguistic difference, how quickly it changes, how it separates us, or can draw us together.