University of Minnesota
Department of English
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Department of English

Virginia McDavid

Walk the Talk

Alumna Virginia McDavid (BA 1946, MA 1948, PhD 1956) jumped the teacher track for an adventurous life in dialectology

Image of Virginia McDavid, alumna"Back in the Forties, if a woman wanted a career, she either went into teaching or nursing,” Virginia Glenn McDavid says bluntly; “I had no interest in nursing.” Raised an enthusiastic reader in Northeast Minneapolis by a primary school teacher and a railroad man, Virginia Glenn thought she would teach high school English, probably in Minnesota. It was not to be.

“I had a good advisor,” McDavid recalls, on the phone from her current home in Colorado, “and when she saw my grades, she suggested that I look at other kinds of teaching.” In the Forties, a teacher’s education included a three quarter class entitled The History of English, from Harold B. Allen. “There was a feeling that you can’t teach English too effectively if you don’t know what’s going on with the language,” McDavid notes tartly. Allen also taught American English, in which McDavid then enrolled. “I had a major in History as well as English,” she says, “and when I saw how language difference and development related to historical events, that was it for me.”

Harold Allen had recently taken his PhD at the Universityof Michigan, a hotbed of linguistics, and had worked on the Early Modern English Dictionary project and done atlas fieldwork in Ohio and Illinois for A. H. Marckwardt’s projected Linguistic Atlas of the North-Central States. Allen’s class represented the beginning of a journey that would take McDavid into small towns around the north-central Midwest, then onto Chicago.

“Linguistic geography is a fairly old branch of linguistics,” explains McDavid, “going back to Germany in the 19th century.” But what entranced the young student was the immediacy of the scholarship in America. At Michigan’s Summer Institute of Linguistics in 1947, she studied dialectology with Hans Kurath, the architect of American folk speech fieldwork who had just published The Linguistic Atlas of New England (1939–1943). Allen was attending the Institute to plan his Linguistic Atlas of the Upper Midwest surveys. Work was underway on the Middle and South Atlantic states; and the students got to meet one of the main fieldworkers there—later the editor of that area’s atlas. His name was Raven I. McDavid, Jr., and Virginia married him in 1950.

Amid this flurry of activity, McDavid learned how to find informants, conduct interviews through Kurath’s questionnaire, and record data. She did fieldwork with Allen in Minnesota in the late Forties; she and Raven interviewed in southern Ontario. Remembers McDavid: “Our students would furnish good leads: ‘You should hear my Grandpa down in ____.’ Small local newspaper offices in a town, they would know the talkative old people. County clerks were good as well. We wanted people from the town, not travelled too much and not too highly educated.

“We would ask how life was in the old days. If possible you’d get somebody who just loved to talk about that. At this time, people were fearful: They were afraid that their intelligence was being tested. What we emphasized in talking to them was that vocabulary from olden times was changing. They would concentrate on the vocabulary. And we would pick up the grammar and punctuation sort of incidentally.” For Raven, working in the South, the concerns were a bit different: “The great fear was that he’d be taken for a revenue agent,” McDavid reveals.

The first of many articles co-authored by the McDavids was “The Relationship of the Speech of American Negroes to the Speech of Whites” (1951). McDavid says that while Raven interviewed many southern blacks, the numbers were not up to today’s data standards. Women’s voices were lacking as well: “Many people of less education wouldn’t let their wives or womenfolk participate.” For her dissertation, McDavid used Allen’s and Marckwardt’s data to write about verb forms in the north-central states and the Upper Midwest. A pioneer in noting gender differences in speech, she marvels at the nuances of gendered speech scholarship today—on the level of sentence style, for instance. “Now that may be changing,” she observes carefully. “By the time your results are published, they’re really historical data.”

It’s clear she’s witnessed—and charted and analyzed—no small amount of change. McDavid’s other main area of scholarship has been dictionaries, which she both contributed to and theorized. She became well-versed in slang, a topic in the course Language and Culture she taught at Chicago State University, where she was a faculty member from 1957 (when it was Chicago Teachers College) until retirement in 1985. (Raven was a professor at the University of Chicago; he died in 1984.) “Teachers don’t really know what slang is,” McDavid says with some heat. “They use ‘slang’ as a one word condemnation for what they don’t like.”

McDavid has a former composition instructor’s respect for Standard English. Yet she continues to be enthralled by variations, subgroups, and shifts in English—which appear to her to be thriving despite the omnipresence of the Inland Northern dialect (her own) on television and radio. “There’s been some loss in limited regional terms, say in the Hudson Valley,” she allows. “But new ones appear. I can hear all kinds of differences that I suspect many people just gloss over and don’t notice at all.” She notices clergy speech; she notices the speech of her daughters-in-law (two children live in Colorado Springs, where she moved in 2001, and one in Roseville). For this Dictionary Society of North America Fellow, the fascinating journey that began in Harold Allen’s classroom continues still.

In 2008 Virginia McDavid established the Virginia Glenn McDavid English Fellowship, in honor of the graduate fellowship which allowed her to focus on finishing coursework more than 50 years ago.

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