Athens, Ga. – The Linguistic Atlas Project, a compilation of studies on words and the pronunciation of everyday American English dating back to the 1930s and located at the University of Georgia, has been awarded a $349,600 grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
With required matching support from UGA, the total funding initiated by the grant comes to $593,356-a significant amount for a research project in the humanities, according to LAP editor in chief and Harry and Jane Willson Professor in Humanities William Kretzschmar.
“The audio archive of the LAP is an unparalleled resource for study not only for the common language of our country but of American culture more generally as speakers describe aspects of life in their own communities,” said Kretzschmar, who has been in the English department in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences since 1986. “This grant will help preserve, quite literally, the 20th-century voice of America.”
Kretzschmar brought the LAP program and its massive documentation with him when he came to UGA. The current project is a continuation of the long-term effort to digitize hundreds of reels of audio tape, a job that is about half finished now. More than 6,000 hours of recordings are involved-interviews from the Gulf, North-Central and Western states that consist mainly of six-hour conversations with speakers selected as representatives of their region.
The interviewees speak about such things as family, housing, food, flora and fauna and custom.
“This is the largest linguistic survey project ever done in the country, and it continues to sponsor new field projects as well as work on the archives,” said Kretzschmar.
The new grant from the NEH will allow the project to hire large numbers of UGA undergraduates to perform two essential functions on the digitized versions of the archival tapes in order to make them available to the public. First, workers must edit out all personal information from the subjects so that future researchers won’t know their identities. Second, the students must, every five minutes or so, add a “topic” tag, so that anyone looking at the archive in the future will find searching easy and effective.
There won’t be an actual paper transcript of the tapes, Kretzschmar said, since that would take one worker an estimated 30 years. Still, with 10 to15 undergraduates at a time working on the digitized tapes, getting them into a useful format should take far less time. The grant will also pay for two graduate assistants to supervise the work.
“One of the main things we’re working toward with all this is a searchable web site, where all the information can be stored and easily accessed by researchers,” said Kretzschmar. “We will be making the information available either in smaller, five-minute files or larger ones, depending on what is most useful for those who need the information.”
While the grant will most immediately allow the proper preservation and archiving of the materials, more is at stake. As speech patterns across the country slowly change, the tapes will be a gold mine both for linguists and cultural historians of the future. Already, many regional dialects and patterns have altered almost beyond recognition, and the rich heritage recorded on the tapes could help answer questions that linguists don’t even yet know how to ask.
An even more interesting aspect may be the tapes’ use in the future development of speech-recognition software. Though such software is widespread now, its use is somewhat limited by the wide variety in regional dialects. The word “about,” for instance, sounds very different when coming, respectively, from a Tidewater Virginian or an upper Midwesterner.
“I am one who believes we should embrace that variety,” said Kretzschmar. “It’s what makes us ourselves as Americans. And that variety is just one of the reasons why I believe the Linguistic Atlas Project is so important.”
The web site of the Linguistic Atlas Project can be found at www.lap.uga.edu.