A Dialect Map of the United States, and what it might say about you

You know, dear reader, that I LOVE maps. There has been a quiz being passed around on Facebook that the New York Times published online that asks you how you would say certain things in certain situations and, based on your responses will tell you basically where you are linguistically from.

How Y’all, Youse and You Guys

From the quiz:

Most of the questions used in this quiz are based on those in the Harvard Dialect Survey, a linguistics project begun in 2002 by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. The original questions and results for that survey can be found on Dr. Vaux’s current website.

The data for the quiz and maps shown here come from over 350,000 survey responses collected from August to October 2013 by Josh Katz, a graphics editor for the New York Times who developed this quiz. The colors on the large heat map correspond to the probability that a randomly selected person in that location would respond to a randomly selected survey question the same way that you did. The three smaller maps show which answer most contributed to those cities being named the most (or least) similar to you.

Sample questions include:

  • “How would you address a group of two or more people?”
  • “What is the distinction between dinner and supper?”
  • “What do you call a traffic situation in which several roads meet in a circle?”
  • “How do you pronounce been?”
  • “How do you pronounce the words Mary, merry and marry?”

There are twenty-five questions in all and they tell you roughly where you are most and least dialectically from.

Here are my results:

These are the locations I am most dialectically similar to in the USA.

These are the locations I am most dialectically similar to in the USA.

I am least similar dialectically to these places in the USA.

I am least similar dialectically to these places in the USA.

On January 2, (2014), The New York Times Learning Network Blog posted the quiz along with a number of questions for  the quiz-taker after they’ve completed the quiz. The post is called,”6 Q’s About the News | A Dialect Map of the United States” By Shannon Doyne  here are the questions (while I will try to answer them):

WHAT does this quiz say about where you’re from based on the way you answered the questions?

  • I am not too sure what the quiz says about where I am from based on the way I answered the questions, I am sure the linguists in my life could tell me more. I suppose that it means collectively, we have very distinct words for some things and not for others. However, there were a few questions that I wish I could have answered with two responses. With those certain questions I chose one or the other, instead of ‘other’. I am sure that would be telling in its own right.

HOW accurate do you think that is?

  • Based on the maps above, it seems pretty surprisingly accurate. I am originally from the Northwest.

WHERE are people most likely to use the word “hoagie” for a long sandwich filled with cold cuts and lettuce?

  • I think Philly or there around-a-bout. They LOVE their sandwiches there and if you have ever had a Philly steak sandwich you might be able to understand why. A little Googling on the web and I learn that I am right.

The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported, in 1953, that Italians working at the World War I–era shipyard in Philadelphia, known as Hog Island where emergency shipping was produced for the war effort, introduced the sandwich, by putting various meats, cheeses, and lettuce between two slices of bread. This became known as the “Hog Island” sandwich; shortened to “Hoggies”, then the “hoagie”.The Philadelphia Almanac and Citizen’s Manual offers a different explanation, that the sandwich was created by early-twentieth-century street vendors called “hokey-pokey men”, who sold antipasto salad, meats and cookies. When Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta H.M.S. Pinafore opened in Philadelphia in 1879, bakeries produced a long loaf called the pinafore. Entrepreneurial “hokey-pokey men” sliced the loaf in half, stuffed it with antipasto salad, and sold the world’s first “hoagie”.[8]

Another explanation is that the word “hoagie” arose in the late 19th to early 20th century, among the Italian community in South Philadelphia, when “on the hoke” was a slang used to describe a destitute person. Deli owners would give away scraps of cheeses and meats in an Italian bread-roll known as a “hokie”, but the Italian immigrants pronounced it “hoagie”.[2] (from Wikipedia)

WHERE do people call the same sandwich a “grinder”?

  • This one I don’t know, but again Googling the term and I find this answer on Wikipedia:

A common term in New England, its origin has several possibilities.[16] One theory has the name coming from Italian-American slang for a dock worker, among whom the sandwich was popular[4] Others[who?] say it was called a grinder because it took a lot of chewing to eat the hard crust of the bread used.

In western Massachusetts a grinder is specifically a toasted sub, for example, the sub is toasted in a pizza oven.[17] In Pennsylvania and Delaware, the term grinder simply refers to a submarine sandwich that has been heated in any fashion.

  • As far as I am aware, people in the Northwest, at least that I knew, would just call it a “sub”, “sub sandwich” and if heated, “a toasted sub”. I know, really inventive and imaginative.

HOW many syllables are pronounced in the word “caramel” where you live?

  • I think this is a situation in which my travels and exposure to other people from other parts of the US and world have effected how I say certain things. I think I used to just call it “car-mel [sic]”, but now I actually say both, “car-mel” and “cara-mel”.

WHO uses the word “sneakers”?

  • I would guess all of the US. I like the word trainers or kicks, which I think I picked up living in London.
  • Another look around the web and I found this little tidbit of info about the etymology of this word:

Advertising man Henry Nelson McKinney popularized the term “sneakers” while working on a 1917 Keds campaign. The athletic shoes, as Keds were known before this clever moment, had a rubber sole that allowed the wearer to sneak behind unsuspecting friends and family. But as it turns out, the word “sneakers” was in use way before this time. Boys, who were known to harass their schoolmasters, called their tennis shoes “sneakers” as early as 1887, according to a New York Times article at the time that cited The Boston Journal of Education. In addition, the former Jordan Marsh department store in Boston advertised “500 pairs of men’s tennis oxfords (sneakers)” in 1889. Keds maintains that it was the first to prominently use “sneakers,” but according to its own library, there were only two passing uses of the term in ads from the early part of the 20th century — in 1922 and 1934. [NY Times]

  • Here is an interesting online discussion about the variety of terms people use to describe these shoes, which you may find interesting.

WHO uses “tennis shoes”?

  •  I would image those people who play tennis, and as far as American stereotypes go, that means the classically rich folk in New England probably?
  • I found this wikipedia article that talks about the history of the athletic shoe and this other dialectic survey which seems to show the term used all over the US, but what might be a greater concentration of usage in the eastern US.

HOW many words are there for the large, wild cat that is native to the Americas?

  • I had to go back to review this one. According to the survey there are at least eight different names for the large wild cat native to the Americas (mountain lion, cougar, puma, mountain cat, pather, mountain screamer, catamount, painter).
  • According to Wikipedia:

The cougar (Puma concolor), also known as the mountain lion, puma, panther, mountain cat,[3] or catamount, is a large cat of the family Felidae native to the Americas. Its range, from the Canadian Yukon to the southern Andes of South America, is the greatest of any large wild terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere.[4]

HOW many of those words do you recognize or have heard people use?

  • Growing up, a friend of my sister’s actually had a cougar as a pet. There was a big who-a-ballo because the cougar attacked someone. I don’t remember if it was a family member or someone else, but the authorities became involved and the friend was so distraught that she had to get rid of her cat. It seemed a little crazy to me that someone would attempt to keep a wild animal as a pet. I’ve seen those animals at the zoo, but never have I thought “Yeah, I wanna take one of those home.” Knowing how much I like to eat and how much our medium-sized dog liked to eat, I knew it would want to eat way too much than a standard individual or family should probably provide. I mean, big dogs can eat at least their weight in food in, like, a week or so.  – sorry, tangent.
  • Of these terms: mountain lion, cougar, puma, mountain cat, pather, mountain screamer, catamount, painter, I have officially heard five of them. I have never in my life heard the animal be called a mountain screamer, catamount or painter.

WHAT does “kitty wampus” mean?

  • I haven’t a clue. However, based on the input from a slang website, Cattywompus  means, “when something appears off center.”

WHY do you think there are so many different terms for “a big road on which you drive relatively fast”?

  • Because Americans love their cars and love to drive. I imagine it is similar to why, apparently, Inuit people have over one hundred different terms for ‘snow’. It is absolutely a part of our life, practically inescapable no matter if we drive or not. It is a part of our culture.

WHY do you think this quiz was one of the most e-mailed on the Times site in late December?

  • I think this was one of the most e-mailed stories on the Times website in late December for a number of reasons, mainly people:
  1. Are being reflective, since it is so close to the end of the year.
  2. Are stressed out because it is almost Christmas.
  3. Are taking a break from mundane work to think about something interesting but not too serious or irrelevant – because it is almost Christmas and New Years Eve.

WHEN have you encountered differences in pronunciation or in the words used to describe something?

    • Living abroad, this actually happens all the time – especially working in English. My students try to tell me all the time that a word they mispronounce is actually pronounced that way in Britain or another highly populated English speaking country. In the few years I have lived abroad I have come to recognize quite a few differences in pronunciation and term between British and American English. And, mind you I’ve discovered a few distinct variations of how Americans from different parts of the country pronounce certain things. Take for example, Pinterest. I would say, “pin-ter-est” while a friend from Illinois would say,  “pin-trest”. I said it her way the other day and she praised me for saying it “right”. 🙂

Suppose a person grows up in one part of the country but lives for a long time in another area.
WHAT would be more likely to be his or her three identified cities: those from his or her youth or current location? WHY? Test your theory by finding people who were born in one part of the country and live in another and have them take the quiz and discuss its results.

      • This is an interesting question. My husbands brother who has grown up in multiple places in the western world has a very interesting often implacable way of speaking and pronouncing certain words. He has lived most recently for some time on the east coast, in Washington D.C. and his dialect sounds almost Bostonian. However, he spent the first few years of his life, about six years, in England. Then the family moved to California but also has ties to Washington State and Utah. So, in other words, his way of speaking is very interesting.
      • I have friend who grew up in London but now lives in Germany. He trained himself to use more Received Pronunciation (RP) British rather than the London British he grew up around in Southwestern London. I know a number of people, originally American, who now live in Germany who grew up calling a coffee meeting with friends a Kaffee Klatsch which is likely based on their family’s or area’s string German heritages.
      • Even I myself know that I use an amalgamation of terms I have picked up while traveling over the years. I like to call the baby carriage a pram because of it’s simplicity and quickness. I like to call the lady that takes care of my son his childminder or Tagesmutter  because it is day care, but I have no idea what to call the person who takes care of my child other than day care provider and that just isn’t efficient. I also like to call gum, chewy and gummy candy, gummy which I think I picked up in Australia but am really not sure now.

So, what do you think? How did you do on the little quiz and how might you answer some of these questions differently?

5 thoughts on “A Dialect Map of the United States, and what it might say about you

  1. My result was strange. It showed that I had a Wisconsin accent. I have been to Wisconsin twice so I am not sure why it came out that way. May I dare to say my accent has become accentric (sp) in my travels.

  2. Hi: I am a native of Olympia, Washington but grew up in Tacoma, Washington. My family has been in Western Washington since 1887. I think people born in Western Washington talk people in Minnesota. I was Germany for two years while in the army in the late 1980s and then stationed in Fort Polk, Louisiana. I picked up a Southern accent while at Fort Polk. I had to make a little bit of effort to when I got home to Tacoma to lose it. I was in Karlsruhe and Heilbronn Germany.

    • I think that when we pick up on how the people speak around us, even perhaps without noticing it, it is our way of taking that place with us when we have to move on.

      With regard to your comment about people from western Washington talking like they are from Minnesota, perhaps it is because people with the same cultural heritage settled in both places? It is just a guess as I do not know for sure.

      Thanks for your message Rick, and for reading my blog!

  3. Pingback: Maps, politics, global warming and cultural perspective | living the american dream in europe

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