Water fountain or bubbler? Lightning bug or firefly? Pop or soda? Take the linguistics test

A wonderfully cool series of dialect maps by Joshua Katz, from the Department of Statistics at North Carolina State University (using survey data from Bert Vaux), tracking how we say different words, and different things, across the US.

For example, do you say water fountain, drinking fountain or water bubbler?  Lightning bug or firefly?  Do you pronounce mayonnaise with 2 syllables or 3?  And did you know that in part of the south when it rains while the sun is shining, they call it “the devil is beating his wife”?

Katz even has the linguistic breakdown for specific towns – he’s got both of the small towns in Illinois where I grew up.

I grabbed a couple dozen of the maps, with Katz’s permission, and put them in a slide show below.  Just click the “next” button below the image to see the next one.  And do check out Katz’s site for the 122 maps and more – you’ll be there all day!  Here’s my slideshow of some of the more interesting, maps, and below that is a quick email I got from Katz explaining a bit more about the project.

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I emailed Katz asking for a bit more information on where he got the data from, and also why some of the maps show word options that don’t seem to have any representation on the map itself – meaning, the option is colored green but there’s no green on the map. Here’s what Josh wrote back:

The composite maps only show the most common answer at every location. The more clearly one answer dominates, the darker the color. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. For that, you have to look at the individual maps… There you can see the variation in where each answer is more/less common. So, for example, the cream cheese question: cream CHEESE isn’t estimated to be the most common anywhere… but looking at the map you can see that it’s relatively more common in West Virginia (36% in Charleston) than it is in New Jersey (11.5% in Parsippany).

The research was done as part of my final project for Applied Spatial Statistics at NC State (taught by Brian Reich). I had first stumbled onto Vaux’s old dialect maps back when I was an undergrad, and when it came time to choose a project topic, I immediately thought of doing something with that data. So, back in early March, I sent Dr. Vaux an email and he sent me back the dataset.

I’ve always found regional variations in dialect really fascinating. Language says so much about who a person is. To me, dialect is a badge of pride–it’s something that says “this is who I am; this is where I come from.” So, just to take one example, being from South Jersey, what everyone else calls a sub will for me always be a hoagie.

Oh, and I absolutely LOVE this one. I’d NEVER heard of that third option.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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