America is not a uniform country. Its residents come from all over the world, bringing their unique cultures and languages with them. And over the centuries and across the vast distances that make up the country, new linguistic differences have grown. How we speak reveals much about where we grew up or spent parts of our lives. As a New York Times interactive site clearly shows, just by answering questions about which words we use, a computer can predict with startling accuracy where we come from.
Below is my own personal map, which shows that the way I speak is closest to how people speak in Connecticut, which is where I grew up and have spent most of my life. You can make your own map here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/12/20/sunday-review/dialect-quiz-map.html?_r=0
The questions asked by the language survey reveal some of the biggest varieties in how Americans pronounce common words and which vocabulary we use in certain situations. For example, is a carbonated beverage a soda, pop, or coke (regardless of the brand)? For us on the East Coast, it sounds weird to hear “pop”, but now I’ve met enough Midwesterners that I’ve gotten used to it.
How about the pronunciation of “aunt”? To me, the “a” should sound like “ahh”, but I most often hear it said like “ant” in the movies. What I originally thought was standard English is perhaps just a regional New England-ish quirk.
And then there’s “y’all”, the preferred Southern construction used when addressing more than one person. Oddly, I started saying this as a kid, even though no one around me did. It just seemed like the most convenient way to talk to multiple people, rather than saying something like “you guys”, which doesn’t sound right to me. This was probably my only response in the quiz that linked me to the Southern US rather than the Northeast, and may be responsible for the swath of red and orange through Virginia and North Carolina.
I find it remarkable that we can take something as personal as our way of speaking and create a map that shows where we fit linguistically in the country. How did the New York Times accomplish this? Here’s how the site explains it:
“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.”
Check it out for yourself and create your own dialect map. Is yours accurate?