If language is the glue that holds cultures together, then examining the United States through that lens makes a complicated mess of traditional ways we divide up the country to generalize: whether it’s east versus west, north versus south, or, increasingly blue state versus red state.
A mapping project by statistics Ph.D. student Joshua Katz at North Carolina State University takes a visual look at significant differences in pronunciation and word choice that extend across the country, by plotting responses from more than 100 survey questions about dialectical variation on a heat map. The data was originally collected by the Cambridge linguist Bert Vaux, who asked respondents from around the country to pronounce words like “crayon” and “crawfish,” say which city is meant when someone says “The City,” or suggest how they refer to “you” in the plural.
“Dr. Vaux’s maps showed each response as a single color-coded point, so you could see individual instances of each answer,” Katz told NCSU’s research blog Abstract. “I wondered if there was a way to take the existing data and create maps that gave a more complete picture of national dialect differences," so he created an algorithm that could weight a response’s prevalence in different locations.
Browsing the maps shows how many of the differences—and similarities—in the dialectical landscape are rather unexpected. In some cases, New Englanders have far more in common with Southerners than the rest of the country: both regions favor long ‘a’ sounds in the word ‘pajamas’ (where the second syllable sounds like ‘father’ as opposed to jam’), for example. Certain trends pit the coastlines against the interior, like soda versus pop, respectively. Other words, like ‘pecan’ have so much variation across the country, the entire map shows up in pale pastels, indicating no dominating trends in pronunciation. And can someone please explain why the only two states in the country where people consistently refer to a water fountain as a bubbler are Rhode Island and Wisconsin?
The reality presented on the maps simultaneously shows that we’re all a lot more similar than we think—no matter where we live—but also, freakishly different. “I’ve always found variations in dialect fascinating—language says so much about who a person is,” Katz told Abstract. “To me, dialect is a badge of pride—it’s something that says, ‘This is who I am; this is where I come from.’”