The Linguistic Atlas of the Pacific Northwest

Linguistic Atlas
Pacific Northwest

Joey Stanley


September 30, 2016

As a part of my research assistantship this year, I work with the Linguistic Atlas Project, under the direction of Dr. William Kretzschmar. It’s an exciting project to be a part of.

There is a lot going on in the lab right now. We’ve got a team of over a dozen undergrad transcribers working dutifully on an NSF grant awarded to Kretzschmar and Dr. Peggy Renwick, not to mention the web developers for the Atlas Project and for Complex Systems.

One of the things I’m excited about is that I now have access to all the data for the Atlas Projects from over half a century ago. In a nutshell, what happened is that in the 30s and through the 50s and 60s, Hans Kurath and a team of researchers set out to document the language geography of the United States and Canada. Armed with whatever recording devices they could afford, several hours’ worth of interview questions, and expert phonetic transcribers, they set out to document all the accents and dialects of English in North America.

They were partially successful. Starting in New England and in the East, they talked to a couple thousand people, painstakingly analyzed the data, and published a couple multi-volume works specifically focused on certain areas of the United States. Thus, we have the Linguistic Atlases of New England (LANE), the Gulf States (LAGS), and the Upper Midwest (LAUM). However, funding was cut short. Realizing they may have bitten off more than they can chew, the data collected in other portions of the country was never published, other than some brief overviews by some of the researchers. Time passed, and for one reason or another, the majority of this unpublished data disappeared into obscurity.

By the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the original handwritten field notes and any extant recordings were scattered across multiple locations. The original researchers’ dream to publish this data for a general audience was never fulfilled, let alone the majority of potential publications for a more specialized audience. The data was always supposed to be accessible to anyone interested, and just a few decades later it was collecting dust in basements, accessible to probably the half a dozen people that knew about it.

In 1983 some of the data was under threat of being thrown out. Luckily, William Kretzschmar offered to take all the data from all projects and house it at the University of Georgia. Since then, he has been in the process of realizing the original researchers’ dream of making the data accessible. In the 21st century, that means digitizing it all and putting it online. And there has been success in that endeavor.

This is where I come in. As a lowly out-of-state grad student, I’m not particularly concerned with language around Georgia, as interesting as it is. I do however like research on the opposite side of the country: the Pacific Northwest. Only after reading about the Linguistic Atlas of the Pacific Northwest (LAPNW) did I realize that all that data was being housed by my own university. So as soon as I was offered the assistantship in the Linguistic Atlas office, I expressed interest in the LAPNW data. Well, just today, I made a visit to the repository where all the data is held.

After sitting alone for half an hour on the concrete floor literally in the furthest corner in that warehouse, I was quickly able to assess the situation. From what I’ve been able to tell, there are just four boxes of LAPNW data. Compared to the dozens of boxes in the large-scale projects (LANE, LAGS, etc.), it’s a meager project. One box contains the original handwritten notes for about half of the 51 participants, which is great, but I’m a little sad that some of the originals have been lost. But the other three boxes were all copies, including a complete set for all participants and another partial set. I don’t know who did the photocopies or when they were done, but I’m really glad we have them.

So, I brought them back to the office and I’ve started to look through them. It’s a bit exciting for me actually. Since being housed at UGA, I don’t know if these boxes have been opened by anyone. As far as I know, there are probably ten people in the world that would be interested in the LAPNW data, and certainly none of them have had the ability to peruse UGA’s repository. So this stuff literally hasn’t seen the light of day for decades. I don’t know what I’m going to do with this goldmine, but I’d sure like to revive it somehow and possibly do what I can to make it accessible. It’s an exciting time for me.