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I was fortunate enough to go on a vacation to Italy in 1994, right about the time when my interest in linguistics was taking off. One of the missions I gave myself was to find books and music in the local dialects of the places we visited. Europeans have a long and rich dialect heritage, and towns just a few miles apart often have quite distinctive modes of speech.

I still remember that day in a Venetian bookstore, amazed to see a rather massive dictionary of the Venetian dialect, about the size of the largest one-volume standard English dictionaries seen in bookstores. Unfortunately, I had to leave that treasure behind--it would have made my luggage too heavy and my wallet too light--but I managed to find plenty of other books to satiate my curiosity.

After about the second week, when the homesickness started to catch up with me, my thoughts started to turn toward my own native language. We all know that New Yorkers and Southerners have their own peculiar accents: but what about the rest of the country? Was it possible to speak of a "Philadelphia dialect" just as an Italian would speak of a "Venetian dialect"?

Subsequent years of research answered that question, and I found to my happy surprise that American dialects were not indistinct nor uninteresting, they were simply poorly documented. Four hundred years of English settlement in North America have given rise to numerous dialects; not perhaps, as fully diverged from each other as those of Europe, but neither were they the homogenous slurry the pessimists make them out to be.

Neither the regionalist nor the scientist in me wants to see our dialects pass into history unrecorded. In my work with American Indian languages, many of which are only just barely preserved, I often wish that some early explorer had had the foresight to record some of those mysterious languages better. We can't go back in time and recover that lost information. But shame on us if we lament its passing and then repeat the mistake by not properly documenting the very dialects that come out of our own mouths.

On my shelf is a book containing a 2250 word glossary of an Italian dialect, spoken only in my father's hometown of 1500 people. Before a few years ago, there was no comparable glossary of the dialect of my own hometown, Philadelphia PA, which boasts speakers in the millions. To me, that's a wake up call right there.

I don't have much patience for the myriads of articles that decry the "loss of regional languages" in America. Certainly, some regional dialects are dying off, especially in rural areas: but the most recent studies have shown that American English is if anything diverging not homogenizing. And even if our language was homogenizing, how much more important to document all of its idiosyncratic variations while we still hear them!

We need, first of all, to understand the overall picture of American dialectology much better. This monumental task is now being accomplished by the most talented professional scholars in the field, with the DARE dictionary and the Phonological Atlas, and many other excellent studies. Next, those materials need to be fully utilized to describe the speech of all the major localities around the country. Once all of the main areas have been thus documented, it will be easier for local folklorists everywhere to collect and publish their own data. Most importantly, the study of dialect has to be put in a form that is accessible to the lay reader.

The impracticality of grandiose dialect research projects in such a vast nation, has been soberly understood by American dialectologists since the early 1900's. Even the best of them, such as DARE, have incurred financial and methodological difficulties. In true American fashion, therefore, it is up to the citizens themselves to shoulder the burdens of research, to use some of that classic rugged individualism and contribute to the world of letters in whatever way their talents direct them. We cannot afford to be snobbish about who will do the job: there is too much to do, and too great a risk of tasks left undone.

It is my hope, then, that this site provides an added stimulus for people who are interested in regional speech, to get them to realize that interest in a concrete way. My hope is that we can catch up with our European friends and eventually have full dialect descriptions--grammars and dictionaries--for every major city and region in English-speaking North America.

As a great believer in the unique legacy of North American civilization, and as a student of history, I can easily imagine scholars two millenia from now looking back upon our seemingly uneventful lives with fascination, and wondering how such a vast and varied civilization expressed itself.

Let us do them and ourselves a great favor, and ensure that they have the answer to just such a question.

-Claudio R. Salvucci, August 1999.

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