Short Saturday: A Linguistic War Between the States

You know I’m fascinated by accents, dialect, colloquialisms, and slang, so when I stumbled on this interesting article, I was all over it. Business Insider says,

Regional accents are a major part of what makes American English so interesting as a dialect.

It seems Joshua Katz, a PhD student in statistics at North Carolina State University, used data from the Harvard Dialect Survey to create maps to show word usage and word pronunciation across the United States. There are 122 questions that range from …

• How do you pronounce caramel?
• What’s the distinction between supper and dinner?
• Do you say “by accident” or “on accident”?

… to …

• How regions pronounce the first vowel in syrup.
• Or the vowel in the second syllable of cauliflower.
• And whether there’s any difference between Mary, merry, and marry.

I also learned that some folks have an expression for the night before Halloween (mischief night, cabbage night, gate night …). Who knew?

You can see all the maps and questions here.

I’m struck by two things. First, I wonder how different these maps might have been fifty or a hundred years ago, before our society became so mobile. These days, lots of people grow up one place, then go to college somewhere else and stay … or get a job and relocate … or marry and move with a spouse. This didn’t happen as much, even fifty years ago, as it does now. (It also makes me question the accuracy of the data.)

And this is related to my second observation. I think how you talk, how you pronounce words, in particular, has a lot to do with where your parents originated from. Or their parents. You learn to speak, first, within your own family. My father was born in St. Louis to parents who hailed from the South. He had both Southernisms and Midwesternisms in his speech, as he lived in St. Louis until adulthood. Similarly, my mom was born and raised in Chicago. So I was raised by two Midwesterners. And I talk like them—even though I’ve never spent more than short visits in the Midwest.

This is something to think when you take the dialect quiz—and to think about when you’re crafting characters for your novel.

Tweet: Regional accents, slang, & grammatical construction make American dialect interesting.
Tweet: How do you pronounce caramel? Your answer tells more than you think!

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  1. Ellen says:

    A fascinating line of research. There are pockets in the Ozarks where people still add h before an initial vowel such as ain’t or it: “Hit’s a long way” or “Hain’t not neither.” (the word neither pronounced with a long i). Pockets of Elizabethan-like pronunciations.

  2. We did this over the Christmas break and thought it was fun. Different questions pop up each time you take it. Both times I did it, it pegged me for northern CA and Utah. Uh-uh. Totally southern CA my whole life, except for 2 years in Africa almost 50 years ago. Everyone else got Oceanside CA, which was at least a little closer to true.

  3. Words and consequently their pronunciation has always fascinated me. Being raised by a Texan and and native of the Ozarks (is that an Ozarkian?)..and surrounded by all those Southern relatives…with their very peculiar phrases reflecting their perceptions…caused me considerable bewilderment all through my California upbringing. When I said, “Don’t be ugly,” (my Grandma said this when one of us was acting hateful) I wasn’t referring to my classmates looks…just their behavior. But, try explaining that to a Southern California seventh grade girl! LOL

    Thanks for the link to the enchanting map! I’m going to pass it along to my writers group.

  4. Help…I need an editor! LOL