Mapping America's language; It's not what you say--it's how you say it, says Dr. McDavid

As you walk down the bright orange corridor at the University of Chicago's Gates-Blake Hall, you might not notice the small sign with the large claim over the door of Room 216.

It says: ''The Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada.''

In the cramped quarters inside, flanked by an array of filing cabinets and piles of professorial papers on desks and chairs, sits atlas editor Raven McDavid Jr.

The tall, gray-haired emeritus professor of English and linguistics speaks with a soft South Carolina accent. He neither looks nor sounds like actor Rex Harrison of ''My Fair Lady'' fame, but he is in many respects an American version of Prof. Henry Higgins.

Dr. McDavid is a man with a keen ear for the regional and social speech patterns in what H. L. Mencken referred to as ''the American language.'' He can often pinpoint a speaker's roots just by listening to him talk for a few minutes.

Mention a ''bubbler'' instead of a drinking fountain, for instance, and he'll suspect you've had a brush with southeastern Wisconsin. If you refer to a seesaw as a ''tippity-about,'' you obviously come from Block Island, R.I. But in most cases it will take much more talking on your part--and careful listening on his--to pin down your geographical origins. Pronounce the ''s'' in greasy rather than substituting a ''z'' sound, for instance, and it provides the professor with only one clue--that you are probably from a Northern state.

McDavid has spent much of his time over the last 37 years interviewing Americans of every conceivable background in all parts of the country and compiling data on their inflection, use of words, phrasing, and pronunciation.

Putting a high premium on rapport in his more than 600 interviews, he has usually tried to play down his scholarly connection, often describing himself as a student of folklore or history.

''Too many people have had their grammar corrected by English teachers,'' he explains.

In pursuit of a relaxed interview, he has also managed to gulp down everything from squirrel stew in eastern Kentucky to tough, fried hog liver served up in Georgia by the sister of an illiterate farmer. She told the linguist that she would have given him chicken but figured he probably didn't want to be treated like the local preacher. She was right.

''If they give you home victuals, they're usually going to give you home language,'' McDavid claims.

Over the years he has approached his interviewing task with the kind of enthusiasm, curiosity, and patience that makes him insist he has enjoyed almost all of it and that there's probably no one who could talk to him longer than he is willing to listen. That claim was put to its most serious test when he interviewed a man known for his garrulousness on Beaver Island, in northern Lake Michigan. The 20 hours of interviewing spanned a record three days. A community delegation, marveling at his accomplishment, saw McDavid off in his boat at the interview's close.

Dr. McDavid's aim now is to combine his results with data gleaned from other linguists in a series of regional atlases listing variations on 800 key words and phrases. So far, two have been published, one on New England and another on the Upper Midwest. McDavid and his associates are now readying material for an atlas covering the Middle and South Atlantic states. Another on the North Central states is expected to follow.

This job requires careful bookkeeping and strict attention to detail. At one point during the interview, PhD candidate Gale Hankins, who has been typing in the office next door, heads for a bookshelf to be sure that the town of Accomac and the county of Accomack, both in Virginia, are indeed spelled differently.

''Always verify your references--even those you're surest of,'' McDavid tells her.

''The office may look as if a tornado has gone through it, but everything is absolutely organized,'' notes William Kretszchmar Jr., the assistant atlas editor. He describes Dr. McDavid as a ''joy to work with'' and ''very generous'' in helping younger scholars get started in the field.

Perhaps partly because the fun and challenge of his job lie in the richness and variety of American speech, Dr. McDavid takes a much more tolerant view of such differences than the fictional Henry Higgins.

The University of Chicago professor reasons that, unlike England, where spoken Oxford English has long been viewed as the model for educated Britons, the United States has no standard spoken language. Even among educated Americans , he says, there are often strong regional variations. It follows, in his view, that Americans need to be better listeners, less prone to label what they like or don't like as right or wrong.

''One man's native variety of speech is just as good as anybody else's--part of his heritage--and ought to be treated with respect,'' he says. ''People tend to make value judgments, deciding that something unfamiliar is strange or peculiar, when they should be doing more reading and listening. They ought to be exposed to all varieties of English.''

It is that same lack of exposure which he thinks has led some suburban white Northerners in particular to conclude that there is such a thing as ''black English.'' It is a concept McDavid, who admits his own voice has been racially misidentified by Northerners, does not buy. He says that the normal speech of both races among those without much education in the South tends to be much the same.

He also cautions Americans against feeling superior if they hear a word they may not happen to like or use.

In fact, the context of words and phrases - with whom and for what purpose they are used--is the critical factor in determining what is ''correct'' and what isn't, he says.

Charging that there is a lot of ''needless anxiety'' focused on the ''right'' and ''wrong'' use of grammar, he argues that custom tends to be the arbiter of correct usage. He says it was common 150 years ago, for instance, to refer in this country to a new house ''building,'' whereas most people now speak of a new house ''being built.'' And even current grammar has some regional variations. New Englanders, for instance, may say someone ''dove'' into the water while in other parts of the country many would say ''dived.''

''You can't condemn something like that,'' Dr. McDavid says. ''It's like Manhattan versus Boston clam chowder. Cookbooks simply now recognize there are two versions.''

Just as he urges more tolerance in listening to others' speech, he regards it as often wise and natural to tailor one's speaking habits to one's audience.

''This is what's called decorum,'' he says. ''You don't want the people you're talking with to feel uncomfortable. . . . A lot of people - and I've been among them - just shift gears unconsciously according to who they're talking with.''''

'Ain't' can be a legitimate grammatical construction, but a lot of people don't like it and have been taught they shouldn't like it,'' he says. ''Of course, in written English there is a standard - you can't write a multiple negative. And in speaking you have to be very careful how and where it's used or you might be misunderstood.''

While his research on the atlas is expected to go on for many more years, McDavid concedes that language is always changing and that in one sense anyone trying to track it in its purest forms is forever too late.

''You go into a community and they always say, 'It's too bad you weren't here 10 years ago - all the old people are gone.' ''

Still, he remains confident that many rich variations in speech patterns continue among Americans of every educational level. He says he does not think that TV and movies have done much to standardize speech or encourage everyone to speak in grammatically perfect sentences.

''It's partly because you're listening and not participating,'' he says. ''I'm not talking back to David Brinkley.''

Urbanization and increasing geographic and social mobility in this country have done much more, he says, to wear down the sharpness of pronunciation differences.

Even so, Dr. McDavid suggests that every American keeps at least some vestige of his original, geographically determined accent. It is generally acquired by the age of 12 or 14, he says, by associating with those around one. That accent may be modified later if a person moves. But the linguist argues that it takes a great deal of effort to erase every trace of one's native speech. In his opinion , former President Nixon is one of the few public figures who have managed to do that. It must have taken a considerable effort, Dr. McDavid says.

Though some of his Southern friends now accuse him of having a Yankee accent, Dr. McDavid says he has never consciously tried to change his speech. And he says that despite his pronunciation - ''six,'' for instance, does for both the number and sixth - he has always managed to keep his spelling distinct and correct. He taught Burmese to GIs in New York City during World War II and says he has been told he has a fairly good Mandarin Chinese accent. But his roots - right up to his graduation from Furman University - are in Greenville, S.C. And he went no farther than neighboring North Carolina to get his PhD from Duke University. But he taught English at a number of colleges around the country before making a relatively long career stop at the University of Chicago, starting in 1957.

For McDavid, even after so many years of focusing on them, words remain a source of endless fascination. He frequently interrupts his conversation with a reporter with such stoppers as ''How do you pronounce . . . ?'' or ''Have you ever heard 'genuine' pronounced with a long 'I'?'' Indeed, he says, while many consider that pronunciation of ''genuine'' as ''quaint'' or ''countrified,'' it is in fact ''educated usage'' in Canada and growing. Because of the constant changes in language, he says, words that mean one thing in one region may mean something else in another.

He admits he also longs to discover more about how certain words, phrases, and pronunciations came to be. Though he can tell you, for instance, that those who pronounce ''out'' as ''oot'' are likely to come from Canada, eastern Virginia, or the Charleston, S.C., area, and that the origins must be Old English, he says he has been through a survey of 300 English communities and can find no spoken example.

''It must have somehow developed independently in the New World,'' he says. ''I find that every time you answer one question, it opens up two or three more - that's what makes this business fun. I figure I'm just beginning to learn.''

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