‘Speaking American’: Regions, Accents and the Subtleties of Language


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The New York Times' Josh Katz and Naomi Baron of American University discuss the origins of American regional dialects.

speaking-americanHave you ever visited another part of the country and heard the locals use words unfamiliar to you? In some regions, people refer to a carbonated beverage as “soda,” while it’s “pop” in other parts. In Pittsburgh, “yinz” is slang for “you ones” or you people. The New York Times’ Josh Katz created a compendium of these colloquialisms in his book, Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk. 

Katz, a statistician and graphics editor at the paper, based his book on a wildly popular interactive dialect quiz he created in 2013. He and Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics and executive director at the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning at American University in Washington, D.C., discussed why people from various regions speak differently on the Knowledge@Wharton Show on Sirius XM channel 111.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: What got you thinking about this topic for a book?

Josh Katz: I grew up in South Jersey outside Philadelphia. And you know, in Philadelphia, [a sandwich on a roll is] a hoagie, not a sub. I have friends from New York who called it a sub, and I was interested in this idea of where hoagies became subs and how does that happen? What are the other lines [of linguistic demarcation] like that around the country? I remember being very curious about that from a young age, then eventually coming across the Harvard Dialect Survey, which inspired me to do another round of data collection on similar ideas and ultimately led to this book.

Knowledge@Wharton: That Harvard survey looked at how or why people say certain things in certain parts of the country?

Katz:  Right. That was a survey done about 15 or 20 years ago. I wanted to update and add some questions and do another round of data collection on it. I put this quiz together where you would answer about 25 questions on whether you said soda, pop or Coke, or hoagies versus subs. At the end, you’d get this map that said, “Here’s where in the country people talk the most like you.” I got about 350,000 people to take this quiz, and it was ultimately that data that led to the maps and the book.

Knowledge@Wharton: The book is a breakdown of different words and maps of where these words are used.

Katz: That’s exactly it. I tried to use language as a way of exploring these ideas of the different regions of the country and some of the history behind the words and why people say the different things that they do.

Knowledge@Wharton: Naomi, this book touches on something that I’m sure you have looked at quite often, which is why people say certain things in certain regions and why a specific word may be different, like pop and soda.

A lot of differences “deal with food because a lot of these dialects are tied up with people’s identities and the places where they come from.” –Josh Katz

Naomi Baron: There’s a whole range of reasons. I’ll give you a quick list of answers. Why do they say the things they do? That’s because dialects developed in different parts of the United States, as they did in England. People from different parts of England came to different parts [of the country], particularly the East Coast, seeding some of the differences in dialects. … Why do we maintain these [differences]? A whole rash of explanations, the most important of which is we grew up using language that way and, therefore, it’s natural to us.

The second is, we like it because it helps us identify with a particular part of the country or a particular group of people. We maintain certain words, even if other people say, “Boy, you sound weird,” because you want to say, “I say tonic. I do not say soda, I do not say pop, I do not say Coke, I say tonic because my family was from Boston for many generations back. Take that.”

Knowledge@Wharton: There is this historic element to it, and regionalisms really do hang in as you cross from generation to generation.

Baron: Language is one of those things we really do learn at mother’s or father’s knee. And if there’s no particular reason to change the way you speak, you don’t. However, there are often reasons to change. Teaching in a university setting in Washington, D.C., we have students coming from all over the country. One of the first things they do, including when they come from Pittsburgh, is to say, “Yipes, do I stick out if I say yinz [meaning you ones]?” So, I’m going to try to learn to speak the way they do in Washington, whatever the heck that might mean. You can see people decide consciously to at least temporarily abandon certain ways they grew up speaking. Although, interestingly, when they go home for vacations, they often go back to it because it’s like comfort food. It’s the way that they’re used to speaking.

Knowledge@Wharton: Josh, being from the Philadelphia area, you probably are well-versed on how the Philadelphia accent can pit people from one city against another city.

Katz: You see that a lot in Northeastern cities, where there are much more distinctive clusters than ones that you see out West. Pittsburgh versus Philadelphia versus New York — each has its own very distinct manner of speaking, which is really interesting.

Knowledge@Wharton: How does the West compare with the East Coast?

Katz: A lot of dialects and accents have to do with migration. All of the English speaking started on the eastern coast of America and spread west from there, and people took their accents with them. But then, everyone kind of spread out. You will see as you move westward, everything spreads out and kind of blends together somewhat. But it’s still city to city and region to region. You can still find distinctions between the different places.

Knowledge@Wharton: Naomi, does that mean that Florida may be the true melting pot because you have so many people from so many East Coast cities that are making their way down to Florida to retire?

Baron: I’m going to call it the buffet line as opposed to the melting pot because people often cluster with people who are like them, even when they have retired or moved to another area. There are places in Florida where you think you’re in Brooklyn or Manhattan, or the Bronx because people have not lost their New York accent. Why should they? It served them in good stead all those years, and they keep speaking the same way.

California is a beautiful example where there’s not a melting pot, there’s not a California accent because people have come from so many different places. Just as there’s no Washington, D.C., accent because people have come from so many places. But … when you’re talking about a knife named after Jim Bowie, is it pronounced bouie or bowie? I happen to live near Bowie, Maryland, so I have a real dog in this fight and so do the people who live there, because place names to people can be very important. It’s a way of saying, “I know what I’m talking about and you, the outsider, don’t.”

“We listen to the things that are said by the people who are like us and say things that we, ourselves, would say.” –Naomi Baron

Katz: I should say most of the focus in the book is less on pronunciation and more on word choice. The reason for that is the data in the book really comes from this survey, where people are judging for themselves how they sound. Oftentimes, we’re not the best judges of that. I found the word-choice data to be a little bit more reliable than some of the pronunciation data.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are some of the more unique terms that you’ve come across? I saw that one was sneakers versus tennis shoes, where sneakers is more of a Northeast term.

Katz: Yes, which was interesting to me because if you just go on what you hear in movies and television, you’ll probably come away with the idea that everyone says sneakers. In reality, the majority of the country is going to say tennis shoes.

Baron: Do you remember Keds, whether you want to call them sneakers or tennis shoes? They came back, and suddenly everybody of high school and college age had to have a pair. I always associated Keds with the word sneakers. I’m wondering if that contributed to the data at the time they were collected because of that fad. Now, they’re all called running shoes, whether you run in them or not.

Knowledge@Wharton: I didn’t realize the first time somebody brought up the term grinder to me that it was a sandwich.

Katz: You will hear that most commonly in Connecticut, Rhode Island and parts of western Massachusetts.

Knowledge@Wharton: What about some others? In some places, a water fountain is called a bubbler.

Katz: You will hear that in Wisconsin, and then also in Rhode Island and parts of Massachusetts and these are two wholly distinct places. I tried to research what exactly the origins of that word were and why these two different regions adopted it. I read a lot of theories and I couldn’t find any that was really conclusive one way or another.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are more of these geared towards food in the research that you did, Josh?

Katz: You definitely find a lot that have to deal with food because a lot of these dialects are tied up with people’s identities and the places where they come from. Each region has its own kind of distinctive foods.

Baron: It’s really interesting to watch the wide divergence of terms that remain localized. I remember when I first went to school in California and somebody said, “Oh, would you like to try a French dip?”  I thought, “Is this a [type] of swimming? Do you have clothes on?” I actually just did a little research on where it came from, and there seems to be a fight [about its origins]. There are two restaurants in Los Angeles that claim to have invented it. To my knowledge, that’s not something that’s really made it to the East Coast.

Knowledge@Wharton: A traffic circle is called a rotary up in New England. The first time I heard that, I was like, what are you saying?

Katz: That one is one of the examples in the book where you are actually able to see the usage of that word change over time, whereas back in the 1940s and 1950s, the area of the country that called it a traffic circle was much more widespread. Now, roundabout has really spread throughout the entire country. You only have Massachusetts and Maine that are left calling it a rotary. Scattered pockets in the Northwest and South Jersey will call it a traffic circle. In South Jersey, it’s just a circle.

Knowledge@Wharton: You also focus in this book on how highways are referred to in various portions of the country.

Katz: You can see with some of the examples how the state lines really show up as to where people say different things, because a lot of it has to do with signage. The signs in that state will refer to things using a certain word, so the people from that state do, too. It’s sort of a feedback loop.

Knowledge@Wharton: Naomi, is there a significant adjustment in these terms and words as we go through time with people from other parts of the country moving into different areas?

Baron: I think you asked a really important question. Why the heck are the dialect maps not as clean as one would have anticipated? People move from place to place, that’s No. 1.

No. 2, a new word can come in. This happens with slang all the time. It’s not a dialect issue, it’s a slang issue, where one person uses it maybe on a television program, maybe these days in social media, and suddenly it’s picked up. You may be taking just one word or a couple of words from a particular dialect, and then it sounds as if the people in the area you have moved to or where people picked up from mass media — they are sounding as if they are from this other place, but of course, they’re not.

Roundabout might be a good example. … That’s what they are in the U.K. I’m guessing there was a lot of influence maybe from television.

The other thing is that we pick up individual words not necessarily thinking that it’s a dialectal piece, but it pervades our usage. Take my own speech: I use towards rather than toward. I know that’s British, not American. Do I speak British English? Do I try to sound as if I’m from London? No. But that’s one piece that I picked up from somewhere. I don’t even know where or when, but it has become a piece of my language. That’s the kind of thing that happens in language all the time. We pick up a piece. It’s not always conscious. It’s not from our local region, but it becomes part of our language.

“All of the English speaking started on the eastern coast of America and spread west from there, and people took their accents with them.” –Josh Katz

Knowledge@Wharton: What is the impact of social media on dialects?

Baron: I do a lot of work on social media, just as I do on other kinds of so-called computer-mediated communication. Interestingly, it’s not having as much of an impact as we might think because there’s such diversity. There’s a term in the communication business — filter bubble. We listen to the things that are said by the people who are like us and say things that we, ourselves, would say. So, we tend to see the things that are already part of our language, rather than picking up a lot from someone else.

What we pick up is tone. [Consider] politics. There’s a tone on Twitter that’s a lot rougher in many ways, a lot more in-your-face than it was [before]. It’s that sort of thing that is going more viral than particular pieces of language because of social media.

Katz: That makes a lot of sense. Social media has the potential to allow for a more rapid spread of new dialect features than you might otherwise see. But that’s really just a potential, whether or not that actually happens, we’ll have to see.

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