If you have lived in Portage all your life, you are wanted.
Do you say “budge” or “cut” when someone jumps ahead of you in line? Do you drink from a “bubbler” or “drinking fountain?” Is “gool” or “goal” the safe place when playing outside games as a child?
The editors of the Dictionary of American Regional English want to know.
“I think people who really enjoy language think it’s quite interesting,” said Joan Houston Hall, editor in chief.
Go online before Sept. 30 and take the survey — and you may become part of an updated version of the dictionary that is a linguistic atlas of the United States used by teachers, researchers, linguists, historians and writers, and anyone interested in words.
The volumes of the current version of the dictionary are largely based on face-to-face interviews with more than 2,500 people that took place between 1965 and 1970 in 1,002 communities across the U.S. Five of those people were from Portage, interviewed by a fieldworker in 1968.
If you are a Wisconsin native — and Portage and Randolph residents are among those desperately needed — you can contribute to the dictionary.
“Portage is one of the cities that we investigated 50 years ago. We’re really interested in seeing how language has changed over 50 years,” Hall said.
The work is funded not only by federal government and private endowments and the University of Wisconsin, but also by gifts from “literally hundreds of Americans who love language and simply want to see us succeed,” said Hall, who joined the work on the dictionary in 1975.
The dictionary — and the survey — is proof that, while we all listen to national media, the language is not identical across the country.
“That’s a very tempting notion, but I don’t think it’s true,” Hall said.
An example of how words may differ from region to region is the word “budge.” It turns out that to use the word to mean jumping into a line of people rather than going to the end — also called “cutting in line” — is something typical of Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
“That’s a lovely regionalism,” Hall said.
Another, more famous regionalism is the word “bubbler” to refer to a drinking fountain. That is typical of southeast Wisconsin, and comes from the Kohler Co.’s ad campaign in the 1910s. The reach of “bubbler” spread westward from Milwaukee, reaching Madison and Portage.
The Portage participants in the 1968 interviews — three men, two women — included a journalist, a teacher, an educational administrator, an administrative manager and a farmer.
Such interviews often took a week to complete, with field workers becoming friends with those they interviewed.
“They just really became parts of these people’s lives,” Hall said.
The first of the five volumes was published starting in 1985; the last came out in 2012. A sixth volume of reference material, as well as a digital version, was published in 2013.
It’s time to start thinking about updating the material — and how to go about it.
“The survey we’re doing in Wisconsin is a pilot study to see if we can survey the whole country again, but doing it online rather than face to face,” Hall said.
If the survey works, it could be implemented nation-wide.
“We simply don’t have money or time to do face-to-face interviews anymore,” Hall said.
The online survey involves the same 52 communities that were surveyed in the late 1960s. Several communities have had no residents take the survey, including Portage, Juneau, Belmont, New Lisbon, Florence, Wautoma and Antigo.
That needs to change, says Hall.
It’s not hard to take the survey — simply go to the website and click the link.
There are 41 sections to the survey, on such topics as time, weather, clothing, honesty, relationships and children’s games.
But don’t let that deter you — you can pick and choose which to answer.
“They can take as many sections as they want,” Hall said. “They’re not obligated to do the whole thing.”
In addition, volunteers may also participate in an audio recording, in part reading a special short story created specifically to cover the entire range of sounds we use to form words.
An example of how pronunciation can be different in differing areas is in the word “bag.”
Some say the word with the vowel sounding like “bay,” while others may say the vowel like “back” or even “beg.”
Pronunciations may have changed over the past half century.
“What we’re doing is comparing audio recordings from 50 years apart in the same communities,” Hall said.
Portage is an interesting location linguistically, said Thomas Purnell, associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reflecting its position as “Where the North Begins” and at the intersections of two interstate highways, the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers and a major rail line.
It is in a “cusp” area.
“It’s in between subdialect areas,” said Purnell, who studies changes in language and variations in pronunciation or the sound of words.
“We’re very geared up for what comes out of this survey,” Purnell said.
The survey will help determine if those lines have shifted since the 1960s.
“Is Portage now a suburb of Madison and Wisconsin Dells? Or is Portage still the Gateway to the North?” Purnell said. “We will never know that unless people take the survey.”