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Sonic Dictionary: An Aural History Project

Brooke Watson of Duke University gathers sound for the Sonic Dictionary.
Mary Caton Lingold
Brooke Watson of Duke University gathers sound for the Sonic Dictionary.

If you don't know the meaning of a word, says Mary Caton Lingold, you can look it up in the dictionary, but if you don't know what a particular sound sounds like, where do you go? (Besides NPR, of course.)

For instance: What does tobacco harvesting sound like? Or someone clogging? Or a shotgun?

The idea for the came to Mary Caton — a doctoral student at Duke University — when she was teaching a writing course about music genres. She discovered that many of her students had trouble identifying musical sounds correctly. For instance, a student writing about reggae might not know an electric bass from an electric guitar. And they had no credible sound-based reference source to turn to.

She also taught a course called Sounds of the South, so she invited her students in that class — and others — to seed the aural library. So far she has gathered more than 170 sounds — including peanut shelling, corn shucking and banjo picking.

"I was surprised," Mary Caton says, "to find how many southern sounds are not actually unique to the south. For example, one of my students found a recording of sugarcane harvesting to contribute to the sonic dictionary. It was made in Vietnam. She was worried that it wouldn't count for the project, but I think it's great because it challenges us to question whether or not sounds are truly indigenous to a particular region."

For now, Mary Caton is working with other academics to build her dictionary. Eventually, she hopes to open up the project to public contributions.

And maybe through the growing Sonic Dictionary we will discover not only the sounds of the South — but the sounds of the North, the Midwest, the West Coast and other places.

What do those places sound like?

The Protojournalist is an experiment in reporting. Abstract. Concrete. @NPRtpj

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.