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Dialects and dictionaries

© GETTYThere is an old story about a sign on a level crossing (the place where a road crosses a railway line, known as a “grade crossing” in the U.S.). The sign was designed for the safety of car drivers, and it said: “Wait here while the red light flashes”. But it had to be replaced because there was a problem in the north of England. In some northern dialects, the word while can mean “until” (see meaning 5 in the Macmillan Dictionary entry), so you can imagine the confusion (and danger) this could cause.

The story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates that dialect words have not yet died out in the UK, and this use of while is still quite common in the spoken language of northern England. Dialects were the subject of a recent post by David Crystal, in which he discussed his new book, The Disappearing Dictionary, and referred to two major dialect dictionaries: the six-volume English Dialect Dictionary (EDD), Joseph Wright’s 19th century survey of dialect terms in the UK, and its American equivalent, the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), which started in the 1960s, and is still a work in progress. Both dictionaries aim to record and preserve dialectal usages, and David Crystal’s book selects and discusses 500 favourite entries from Wright’s EDD, which he describes as “beautiful examples of lost words”.

This brings us back to a topic we have covered before: the question of which words we decide to include in the dictionary, and the criteria we use to make these decisions. In particular, it raises the question of whether a general dictionary like the Macmillan Dictionary can or should take account of dialect words. For all sorts of reasons – including universal education, urbanization, and the influence of mass media – local dialects are in decline in many parts of the world, as “standard” varieties of national languages become increasingly dominant. The same processes sometimes reduce variations even among major regional varieties, for example when words or expressions that started life as “Americanisms” are absorbed into general World English. At that level, as David Crystal notes in his post, there are still significant differences which show no signs of going away, and we are all familiar with British/American distinctions like those in the names of car parts: boot vs trunk, bonnet vs hood, windscreen vs windshield, and so on. But “dialect” (as covered in the EDD and DARE) refers to “local variations in grammar and vocabulary within a country”.

In the case of the UK, the situation is complicated by the fact that this “country” is made up of four separate nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) each of which has its own cultural and linguistic identity. The Disappearing Dictionary includes dialectal words from all over the UK, but most are already obsolete, and in many parts of the country dialects are gradually dying out, even if some usages (like while for “until”) still cling to life. Scotland is an exception The Scots language is a distinct variety of English with its own dictionaries, and many words from Scots are still widely used. The Macmillan Dictionary includes about 30 items labelled as Scottish, including bairn (a child or baby), ken (to know), braw (nice or attractive), and swither (to be unable to make up your mind).

We can justify including words like these in the dictionary, because all are common in Scotland (and appear frequently in Scottish books or poems) and many would be familiar to speakers in other parts of the UK too. But as David Crystal says in the introduction to his book, “some words may be very local indeed, used only by people from a [particular] town or village”. It is important that words like this are preserved from oblivion and that the wonderful diversity of English should be (in Crystal’s words) “celebrated”. But it would be difficult to make a case for including these “very local” words in a general dictionary like ours.

We are making one exception, though. To celebrate the release of The Disappearing Dictionary@panmacmillan is running a competition to save one word from disappearing forever. Follow #disappearingdictionary to vote for your favourite – we’ll post the results here when the winner has been announced, and the winning word will get a place in the Macmillan Dictionary.

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Michael Rundell

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