The Linguistic Atlas Project (LAP) consists of a set of survey research projects about the words and pronunciation of everyday American English, the largest project of its kind in the country. Beginning in 1929 interviews with thousands of native speakers have been carried out in different regions of the country--and primary interviews are still going on in the Western States. It is not hard to see why the work has taken so long when each survey subject has literally spent hours in conversation with a field worker, talking about common topics like family, the weather, household articles and activities, agriculture, and social connections. A total of over 800 topics were covered in each interview in most regions, to elicit the common words in use for them. Before tape recorders, each response was recorded by highly-trained field workers in detailed phonetic script to preserve the pronunciation. Audio tapes 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 and pronunciation. A large part of the continental US has been surveyed, all of the US east of the Mississippi, but most of the results of the interviews have not yet been published in an accessible way. This Web site attempts to change that.
The importance to the humanities of these recordings is both linguistic and cultural. There is no better systematic coverage of twentieth-century daily life in America. The content of the interviews talks about American history and culture according to a predictable set of topics, so that speakers and regions can be compared to one another. The cultural content comes not as dry lists of facts but instead in the original voice of the speakers, culture as it was lived by real people. While previous publications of Atlas data have been valuable for the study of language variation, these interview recordings have great humanistic value as a record of the daily lives of Americans. And the recordings do still have value for linguists, more value than ever since the sound files can be processed with the contemporary computer methods of acoustical phonetics (Erik Thomas, for instance, as made great use of such historical recordings for acoustic analysis). Moreover, since it does not require special training to listen to recordings (as it does to make good use of phonetic transcriptions), members of the public in this Web site have much greater access to real American voices, as they were collected systematically by LAP.
It is fair to say that LAP research underlies a good deal of what we know about the twentieth-century varieties of American English. The LAP surveys are the empirical benchmark against which linguists of many kinds can measure their own current research. Earlier analytical volumes based on partial LAP survey results (Kurath 1949, Atwood 1953, Kurath and McDavid 1961) still form the basis for scholarly opinion about American dialects. These analyses have been confirmed by later work, e.g. Carver 1987, which was based on the research for the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE; Cassidy and Hall 1985-). DARE, of course, is intended to collect all words with regional or "folk" distribution, and to present them in dictionary format. LAP on the other hand, while its results have made a strong contribution to DARE, has a much finer network of survey participants, and is designed to show regional and social variation among them in much greater detail for a more limited, everyday set of topics. LAP survey research has also been a significant starting point for the work of William Labov, who has cited LAP results in many of his major works on American varieties (1963, 1966, 1994); his results as published in such works as his 1991 article on "The Three Dialects of English" (and also his formerly unpublished Telsur results, now available in Labov, Boberg, and Ash 2006 "Phonological Atlas") confirm in large part and extend earlier LAP analyses of the Midland region (generally corresponding to his area of low-back vowel merger), the Northern region (generally corresponding to the area of the Northern Cities Shift), and Southern region (generally corresponding to the area of the Southern Shift). The Telsur/Phonological Atlas study selected only a few people from each metropolitan district in the country (usually two), in contrast to the dense regional survey pattern of LAP, and so it cannot make possible the detailed regional analyses that have characterized LAP. Labov's other research in particular cities like Philadelphia, on the other hand, is more dense and community-oriented than the LAP surveys. The historical surveys of LAP can provide a standard against which current research like Labov's can measure phonological change in large terms (as in the Phonological Atlas) or can assess local community language variation in a wider context; without the results of the historical LAP surveys, scholars would find it much more difficult to assess the value of current research based either on dense local interviews or on a loose network of national interviews.
Works cited above:
Atwood, E. Bagby. 1953. A Survey of Verb Forms in the Eastern United States. Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press.
Bailey, Guy, and Erik Thomas. 1998. Some Aspects of AAVE Phonology. In Mufwene, Salikoko, John Rickford, Guy Bailey, and John Baugh, eds, African American English: Structure, History, and Use. London: Routledge.
Carver, Craig. 1987. American Regional Dialects. Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press.
Cassidy, Frederic G., and Joan Hall 1985-. Dictionary of American Regional English. Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard U. Press.
Kurath, Hans. 1949. A Word Geography of the Eastern United States. Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press.
Kurath, Hans, and and Raven I. McDavid, Jr. 1961. The Pronunciation of English in the Atlantic States. Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press.
Labov, William. 1963. The Social Motivation of a Sound Change. Word 19:273-309.
Labov, William 1966. The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Washington: Center for Applied Linguistics.
Labov, William 1991. The Three Dialects of English. In P. Eckert, New Ways of Analyzing Sound Change (Orlando: Academic), 1-44.
Labov, William 1994. Principles of Linguistic Change. Oxford: Blackwell.
Labov, William, Charles Boberg, and Sherry Ash. 2006. Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Atlas Advisory Board
Julie Roberts (ADS Exec Sec)
Kurath Fund Trustees (3-year terms)