This spring the great good folks behind the Dictionary of American Regional English posed a simple question: if granted access to the new digital DARE site, how would it enrich and improve your writing? The 500-word answer that best expressed the value of dialect variation in effective writing would win a three-year subscription to the site for its author.
The DARE Board of Visitors likely expected a nice variety of responses, but they can’t have imagined anything more lovely than what they received from contest winner Amy Clark. A professor of English at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and founding Director of the Appalachian Writing Project, Clark wrote of “voiceplace,” heritage, and identity, and how DARE would not only bolster her own writing but would also help her students discover their own linguistic histories. Her essay follows in full.
DARE to Dream by Amy Clark
One of my favorite words, coined by George Ella Lyon, is “voiceplace.” It brings together two key elements of a person’s culture, and defines my life’s work and writing: empowering the marginalized voices of a marginalized place.
My voiceplace is central Appalachia, where railroad tracks connect squares of farmland, woods and town like the seams of a patchwork quilt. I was never taught my linguistic history at school—only “good” and “bad” binaries of English (my home voice falling into the “bad” category)—but I knew that that my great-grandmother’s words like counterpin for quilt and pea-fowl for the colorful birds that honked and clattered on the smokehouse roof were from another era. Preachers’ voices had rhythm in the way they found a cadence and followed it as they recited the KJV Bible and wove those words together with their own: It don’t matter what comes; thou art with me. I heard front porch stories in our hollers about haints.
As Linda Scott DeRosier says, we carry our histories in our mouths.
My home dialect almost always infuses my writing. I have invited it into students’ writing, as well. I tell them our voices are living artifacts that have survived five hundred years of critics, persecution, and predictions of leveling. There is nothing “incorrect” or “wrong” about them. For some, coming to terms with the voiceplace is a struggle. Others have called it life-changing in how they learn to write.
Dialect variation in writing matters because words and grammar patterns are more than their meanings. They can function as instruments of power or tell us what we need to know about people. In some parts of Appalachia, the pronunciation of one vowel, such as Appalaycha for Appalachia, can mark an outsider. It can also link people hundreds of miles apart, like the pronunciation of wash as worsh, spoken in Jonesville, Virginia and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dialect variation—if used effectively—can flavor fiction. Denise Giardina’s opening line to her novel Storming Heaven reads, “They is many a way to mark a baby while it is still yet in the womb.” Instantly, we know something about the narrator’s region, superstition, and age. And searching for dialect variation in primary sources such as early journals and letters is one of the best ways for us to date and study spoken language, like the way my great-grandmother wrote “arthuritis remedy” in her recipe book. Digging through lace-like script for phonetic spelling is how I imagine it feels to brush sand from an ancient fossil.
Access to DARE would be invaluable in my writing and teaching, and expand what I can offer my students as they learn about their linguistic histories. As I talk about the legitimacy of dialects, the why behind our rich tapestry of voices in this country, particularly for writing teachers with misguided (and misinformed) strategies for standardizing their students’ written and spoken Englishes, DARE would strengthen my position on dialect variation in a society where sameness seems to be a privileged, institutionalized concept.