photo by Steven Guzzardi
Those of us who spend a lot of time on the internet know that most people love to be asked questions about themselves.
You may have a relative who is addicted to taking personality quizzes and posting the results on Facebook. (That relative might be you.) After the Harry Potter-themed site Pottermore unveiled a quiz designed to sort you into the “correct” Hogwarts house and, later, one identifying your patronus, the results seemed to dominate Twitter and Tumblr for weeks. So it probably should not have surprised anyone that one of the most popular features ever to appear on The New York Times’ website included an interactive questionnaire.
In 2013 Josh Katz, then a graduate student in statistics at North Carolina State University, became fascinated with a set of data collected in a Harvard study about 10 years prior. The researchers, Bert Vaux and Scott Golder, had asked 50,000 Americans more than 100 questions about how they pronounced certain words and specific terms they used to describe things like “rubber-soled shoes you wear in athletic activities.” Vaux and Golder plotted the results as colored points on maps of the United States.
Intrigued by the raw, self-reported data, Katz decided to use it to create his own versions, what most laypeople would call “heat maps,” which showed larger trends. He also narrowed the questions down to a friendlier 25, dismissing many as irrelevant or outdated. The graphics desk at the Times ran across Katz’s heat maps on his website, and invited him to come to New York for a summer internship.
The resulting Times feature was the most-shared of 2013, despite the fact it went live in late December. Over 350,000 readers participated in the interactive quiz. The feature shows you how your answer compares to national responses for each individual question, and then offers three cities that best match your most distinctive answers. As the popularity of the quiz spread, suddenly discussions about dialect seemed to be everywhere. The Atlantic created a video that allowed you to hear respondents answer some questions, while Business Insider (a bit hyperbolically) offered “22 Maps That Show How Americans Speak English Totally Differently From One Another,” drawn from Katz’s work.
As Palisades Hudson grows, we’ve found that some of our staff get very emphatic with even a much less formal discussion of regional variation. Last week, employees from across the country gathered in Connecticut for our firm’s annual retreat. In our unusually full northeast office, I asked Amy Laburda, an administrative manager, the athletic shoe question after we watched a music video that included a reference to “tennis shoes” rather than “sneakers.” Amy has lived in the New York metro area for some time, but is originally from Indianapolis, and responded that she has always used the terms interchangeably.
Then a client service manager, Rebecca Pavese, spoke up. Rebecca, a New Jersey native, has been based in Atlanta since we opened our office there in 2008; she noted that she actively tries to remember to say tennis shoes these days, since that’s what her kids and their friends always call them. Administrative manager and native New Yorker Melissa DiNapoli couldn’t resist responding that “Tennis shoes are only for tennis” (or something to that effect), putting the state of Georgia, and much of the rest of the country, on notice where footwear is concerned.
These days, differences in accent among American regions have often become subtler and harder for most people to identify, though they certainly have not disappeared. Minor differences remain for those trained to hear it, but if you compare the 25-question quiz to the 122-question version, you’ll notice that a lot of what Katz cut related to pronunciation. Because so many of us sound like newscasters much of the time, at least in certain settings, it is perhaps easier to forget that the terms some of us take for granted can earn odd looks. And sometimes these differences take us by surprise because, of course, we consider whatever regional variant of American English we speak to be “normal.”
But once you take an interest, the internet makes it easy to compare map after map. In addition to Katz (and Vaux and Golder), you can study Robert Delaney’s 24 regions of American English, some of which are incredibly specific and all of which seem very concerned with what to call doughnuts. You could also stop by Vaux’s new project, the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes, which expands beyond U.S. borders. Even before the New York Times feature, hundreds of YouTube users recorded themselves responding to Vaux and Golder’s survey; many of these videos are still available to browse. And if you specifically can’t get enough of dialect heat maps, Katz has now published a book on the topic.
Speech is closely linked to identity, which might suggest part of why we’re so eager to participate in such discussions. Regional differences in speech seem to focus on things that just aren’t that central to daily life, like what you call a bug that rolls up when you touch it or whether you have a special name for the day before Halloween. Compared to other regional differences, the stakes are low.
“At the end of the day it’s fun,” Katz said of his project.
Just avoid telling New Yorkers how many of their fellow Americans wear “tennis shoes” without ever touching a racket (or racquet, if you aren’t hostage to the AP Stylebook). And if someone in Kentucky asks you to pick up a mango, be really sure you know what to get at the grocery store. Or supermarket.