The Letters We’ve Lost

How did you learn your alphabet? Everyone has to learn. It’s usually the first step towards learning how to read and write. Like many, my introduction began with Sesame Street and picture books, but the strongest memory I have of learning the alphabet was in Mrs. Phillip’s kindergarten class in 1995. Around her room, she had a group of inflatable alphabet characters similar to these:

Each week, we would focus on a new character, learning all of the sounds and words associated with the letter. Of course, we also sang the Alphabet Song relentlessly until everyone understood that “elemeno” was not, in fact, a single letter.

Our modern English alphabet is based on the original Roman alphabet and uses Latin characters. Which one of these text samples is the easiest for you to read?

  1. 우리는이 가운데 생명과 자유와 행복의 추구가 있는지, 그들이 어떤 양도 할 수없는 권리를 가진 그들의 창조자에 의해 부여되는 것으로, 모든 인간은 평등하게 태어났다는 것을 자명 한 진리를 개최합니다.
  2. Dicimus esse illa, patet quod omnes homines pares creantur, a suo Creatore praediti quibusdam Iuribus inseparabilibus, inter quae vitae, libertatis et Beata persequenda.
  3. Θεωρούμε αυτές τις αλήθειες να είναι αυτονόητο, ότι όλοι οι άνθρωποι δημιουργούνται ίσοι, ότι είναι προικισμένοι από τον Δημιουργό τους με συγκεκριμένα απαραβίαστα Δικαιώματα, μεταξύ αυτών είναι ζωή, η ελευθερία και η επιδίωξη της ευτυχίας.
  4. Мы считаем эти истины самоочевидны, что все люди созданы равными, что они наделены их Творцом определенными неотчуждаемыми правами, к числу которых относятся жизнь, свобода и стремление к счастью.
  5. हम इन के बीच जीवन, स्वाधीनता और खुशी का पीछा कर रहे हैं कि, वे कुछ अहस्तांतरणीय अधिकार के साथ अपने निर्माता द्वारा संपन्न हो कि, सभी पुरुषों के समान बनाया जाता है, स्वयं स्पष्ट होना करने के लिए इन सत्य पकड़.

Unless you’re fluent in Korean, Russian, Greek, or Hindi, you probably picked number 2 (Latin). You can probably attempt to sound out the Latin, but can’t even begin to try to pronounce the others. That’s because the modern English alphabet uses Latin characters. The other languages don’t. Around 100 languages today use the Roman alphabet, including French, Spanish, Dutch, and many African languages.

[World Distribution of the Latin Alphabet]

There’s no denying the huge impact the Roman Empire had on the lands it conquered. One of the biggest effects of Roman expansion was on language. Most of the places that use the Roman alphabet today were conquered by the Romans at some point (or conquered by those conquered by the Romans).

During the 1st century, the Roman alphabet contained 23 letters (they didn’t use J, U, or W). As the English language developed, those other three letters were added to make the 26 letters we use today. However, other letters were also added, and subsequently abandoned, along the way.

When Johannes Gutenberg introduced movable type printing to Europe in 1439, he began a revolution in the world of language. Suddenly, ideas could be exchanged through print in a way they never could before. Instead of waiting months for a monk to meticulously copy a manuscript letter by letter, printing blocks could be made and hundreds of copies could be produced at once.

Before the introduction of printing, the alphabet was not the concrete concept we know today. There wasn’t an established way of spelling words, and different regions developed symbols (letters) to suit their individual needs. With the printing press came the beginning of the streamlining process of language. As more and more people became literate and more literature was printed, consistency became more essential to communication.

I’d like to focus on six lost letters of the English alphabet. These letters have since been replaced by other letters, or the sounds they represent have been phased out.

ASH

(short “a” sound like cat, past, and happy)

Languages like Norwegian and Icelandic still use this letter, but English stopped using it when Old English fell out of favor for Middle English. The digraph (pair of letters representing a single sound) æ was called “ash” when it replaced an ancient rune that resembled an ash tree. Ultimately, the letter was abandoned when printing began to streamline the alphabet and eliminate unnecessary letters. Æ was separated into AE, and the language moved on. However, you can still find ash used stylistically in names like Encyclopædia Britannica and ÆON.

ETH

(voiceless “th” sound like thing and thank)

This letter, along with thorn (see below), represented the “th” sound. Eth was meant to distinguish the voiceless dental fricative from the voiced dental fricative. It was represented by a “D” with a stroke through it.

Do this exercise so you can see the distinction. Say the word “thing” very slowly out loud (you won’t be able to tell the difference if you try to do this in your head). Pay attention to the way your tongue presses against the back of your teeth. It probably barely touches your teeth to produce the sound. Now, say the word “this” very slowly out loud. Notice a difference? Your tongue should press more firmly against your teeth, and your throat should constrict slightly as your vocal folds work to produce the sound.

It’s an extremely subtle difference, but in Old English the sounds were much more distinct. As the language evolved, eth fell out of use and was replaced by thorn (below). Several Scandinavian languages still use eth.

THORN

(voiced “th” sound like this and that)

Thorn, named after the original rune it’s derived from, had the same purpose as eth but represented a slightly different sound. Eventually, thorn was used to represent both voiced and voiceless dental fricatives as eth fell out of use. However, as the alphabet was streamlined, thorn also fell out of use and both sounds were represented by the letters “th.”

WYNN

(“w” sound like wait, wind, and watch)

Wynn has a funny story. In early Old English texts, the letters “uu” were used to represent the “w” sound. Then, scholars and scribes streamlined this by borrowing the rune wynn  to make writing easier. Wynn was used in its common form (Ƿƿ) until the 1300s, when it was abandoned for uu again, which soon developed into the new letter “double-u,” or “w.”

ENG

(velar nasal sound in sing, marking, and stinging)

Eng was meant to help condense the modern alphabet, but it failed. A scribe named Alexander Gill the Elder invented the eng in 1619 to represent the “-ing” sound in one character. It uses a hook like a lowercase j to distinguish itself from a normal n. While it was a good idea in theory, the timing was all wrong. Modern English was almost in full swing, and there wasn’t room for new characters in a streamlined alphabet. The character didn’t catch on, but it was adopted into the phonetic alphabet by Benjamin Franklin in 1779.

ETHEL

(There is no modern English equivalent to this sound, but the closest example is the o-umlaut sound in the German word schön, meaning “beautiful.” You can find a pronunciation guide HERE.)

Ethel is named after the Anglo-Saxon rune ēðel, meaning “estate.” Like I mentioned above, the sound it represents doesn’t exist in English anymore because it’s been rounded out over the centuries. In most words, ethel has been replaced with either an e or an o. A good example is the word “federal,” once spelled “fœderal.” However, you can still find ethel in several modern English words: subpœna, amœba, and onomatopœia. In these words, though, the letters are usually separated into “oe,” so the character itself has mostly fallen out of use.

Modern English has 40 sounds (phonemes), all represented by the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). You’ll recognize some of the lost letters that have survived as members of the IPA:

Losing these letters has been a process spanning many centuries; this isn’t something that happens overnight. However, you can still find them in old manuscripts. The most famous example is the original manuscript of Beowulf, an epic poem written in the late 10th century or early 11th century. There is only one surviving copy of the poem, held in the British Library in London. When I studied there in 2010, I visited the British Library and spent as much time as I could staring at the manuscript. Of course, I couldn’t read a word because it’s written in Old English and uses obsolete characters. Here’s the first page:

If you zoom in, you will start to recognize some of the characters I’ve shown you:

Now that you’re able to recognize some of the characters, you can start trying to read Old English. Of course, learning to read Old English fluently can take scholars decades, but you can at least start with the first word of Beowulf in the manuscript above: ǷÆT.

You know that wynn (Ƿ) makes the “w” sound. You know that ash (Æ) makes the short “a” sound. Obviously, you know what sound a “T” makes. Put them together and that sounds like “wat.” Modern American English uses the ə (uh) phoneme instead of æ (short a), but it’s still the same word: WHAT.

English isn’t the only language to go through such a drastic change as losing letters. Much more recently (within the past two decades), Spanish has begun phasing out three “letters.” The letters are actually digraphs that are no longer accepted as part of the alphabet by the Royal Academia Española (RAE): che (ch), elle (ll), and erre (rr). I noticed this change firsthand during my years in school. In elementary school, we learned the Spanish alphabet as represented in the first chart, and even sang a song to go with it. By the time I got to high school, the textbooks had changed to match the second chart, and the alphabet I had learned was no longer correct.

Many linguists and grammarians use the loss of these letters as support for descriptive grammar. They believe that the lost letters prove that English is always changing and evolving to suit the needs of its speakers. Who knows what English will look like in 500 years? For now, though, I’ll stick to Sesame Street.

Suggested Reading:

Algeo, John. The Origins and Development of the English Language, Sixth Edition. Boston: Cengage, 2009.

The Comma, Our Old Friend

Almost every complicated sentence in the English language uses a comma, yet this tiny punctuation mark is often misused or neglected. Many find the task of perfecting the use of commas daunting because there are so many rules to memorize and follow. Although there are certain rules that should remain strict to maintain the fundamental structure of English, the comma can be versatile and should be allowed to change with time to reflect the current need of speakers of English.

Punctuation keeps English from becoming incomprehensible. While new words are added to the English language every day, punctuation marks have basically remained static for hundreds of years. In her book, Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss describes punctuation marks as “the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, stop.” Ultimately, punctuation gives a writer the tools of a speaker, like the ability to pause dramatically for the audience, raising volume for an exclamation, or inflect correctly for a question. If punctuation marks are just as important as words for expressing ideas, then each one deserves to be thoroughly studied. In this sense, punctuation marks are some of the most important “words” in the English language.

The word “comma” in Greek means, “a piece cut off.” The comma has caused writers trouble for centuries. Where a speaker can ramble on without a care, a writer must pause to consider the structure of a sentence: Just because I want a pause here, does a comma belong here? Will I look stupid if my sentence has no commas at all? Why do some commas have dots above them? (If you are seriously pondering that last question, I will discuss the wonders of the semicolon at some point in the future.)

Unfortunately, the comma can be confusing to use and, with the introduction of the Internet, relentlessly misused. Many writers are tempted to use them whenever a reader pauses to take a breath. Some writers argue that the original use of the comma was to indicate a pause, so we should be able to use it that way now. There is significant debate in the linguistic world over several issues about the comma, but most of the controversy is trivial (Let’s be honest; aren’t most debates in the grammar world trivial? That’s what makes them so fun). The primary (and most important) rules for comma usage remain untouched.

One debate in particular rises with the use of the serial comma (or Oxford comma), which refers to the comma placed in a list directly before the ending conjunction. For example, in the following sentence, the serial comma is placed before “and”: “Today, I went to class, went to work, and saw a movie.” Many writers frown at the use of the serial comma, including grammarian Steven T. Byington. “The purpose of the comma after [the first item] is to take the place of the omitted conjunction,” he says. “Consequently it is illogical to use it also after [the second item], where the conjunction is expressed.” Others applaud it for its assistance in eliminating ambiguity.

Personally, I love the Oxford comma and never leave home without it. I suppose there is a peaceful middle ground: sometimes a sentence is improved with an Oxford comma, and sometimes it just muddles it up. You decide.

This helpful infographic from Daily Infographic discusses the Oxford comma debate in a visual way:

Another common comma debate is related to the comma splice, the use of a comma to connect two independent clauses. In English, comma splices are generally regarded as grammatical errors and require editing. Microsoft Word will cram a green squiggly line all up in there. However, in her article, “A Few Good Words for the Comma Splice,” Irene Teoh Brosnahan, a proponent of descriptive grammar, defends the use of comma splices, claiming that there is a large gap between grammar handbooks and informal written English, and that the gap can be closed to bring together both styles peacefully.  She believes that the comma splice has been ignored as a legitimate use of the comma, and that comma splices are sometimes necessary to successfully convey ideas. “Even its names are tainted,” she writes. “Comma splice, comma fault, comma blunder, comma mistake.”

Of course, the comma splice is rejected even more often than the serial comma. Comma splices catch the eye because writers have been taught to find them and fix them. However, the flat rule against comma splices fails to see that, stylistically, there are instances when a comma splice is necessary to effectively communicate the meaning of the sentence. Brosnahan lists several practical uses of the comma splice, including parallel syntactical structure, lack of ambiguity, and an effect of emphasis.

Brosnahan provides several examples of unacceptable comma splices. One is, “Seymour is a polite young man, as far as I know, he never even swears.”  Because the syntax is not parallel, there is ambiguity present, and the effect is not for emphasis, the sentence is grammatically unacceptable.  This sentence is acceptable because the syntax is parallel: “Some will gain, others will lose.” “School bores them, preaching bores them, even television bores them” shows that more than one clause can be connected with a comma splice and still be acceptable.

Brosnahan ends her paper cleverly with an obvious yet effective comma splice: “Handbook writers should admit it, teachers should teach it, students should learn it.”  However, Lynne Truss professes a more realistic view: “So many highly respected writers adopt the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you’re famous… Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing. Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look presumptuous.  Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful.” Did you notice the comma splice she used (“effective, poetic, dashing”)? No? Then her use of the splice was successful. Although it is true that comma splices can be used emphatically and can be supported with grammar rules, they should be used consciously and sparingly to avoid scorn from readers.

Considering these issues with modern comma usage, writers are again faced with a choice between descriptive and prescriptive grammar. The constant exchange of information through technology means that our language is constantly evolving, bringing in new words, phrases, and, in the case of commas, structural rules. A language must adapt to changing times to embrace new generations that want to use it.  As users of English, it is important for us to understand that grammar rules are only in effect as long as the majority of the population accepts them. Language evolves so slowly that it is rarely noticeable when a change is introduced.

However, like I mentioned before, some rules are strict and should be strict. Let’s look at a sentence I copied and pasted from an article online about top shows on Netflix. The article has since been edited, but I must have read it during an early draft. Here’s a sentence about the TV show “Wilfred” starring Elijah Wood:

“Elijah Wood stars as the terribly depressed, Ryan. To make matters worse, Ryan see’s his neighbor’s dog Wilfred, as a man in a dog suit, while everyone just sees a dog. Ryan is left to watch his Wilfred, in this raunchy and irreverent comedy on Netflix.”

Ouch. Let’s ignore the misplaced apostrophe for now and focus on the commas. This writer doesn’t have a strong grasp of how the comma is formally used. Instead, he or she places a comma at every natural pause. Here’s how it should be edited:

“Elijah Wood stars as the terribly depressed, Ryan. To make matters worse, Ryan sees his neighbor’s dog Wilfred, as a man in a dog suit,. Everyone else just sees a dog. Ryan is left to watch his Wilfred, in this raunchy and irreverent comedy on Netflix.” [Note: I don’t know what the writer meant to say with the underlined portion.]

Just for reference, here is how the website edited the sentence:

“Elijah Wood stars as a depressed character named Ryan. To make matters worse, Ryan sees his neighbor’s dog Wilfred as a man in a dog suit. Everyone else just sees a dog.”

A case can be made for many grammatical “errors.”  The comma is a punctuation mark that is currently undergoing a good deal of change in the English language, evolving into a more flexible and versatile mark. Prescriptive grammarians are panicking, descriptive grammarians are nodding. However, the comma has outlasted many lost archaic marks and will continue to exist as a staple in English grammar.

If you are interested in learning more about the comma, try some of these sources:

  • Brosnahan, Irene Teoh.  “A Few Good Words for the Comma Splice.”  College English 38.2 (1976): 184-188.
  • Byington, Steven T.  “Certain Fashions in Commas and Apostrophes.”  American Speech 20.1 (1945): 22-27.
  • Cannon, Garland H.  “Punctuation and Sentence Rhythm.”  College Composition and Communication 8.1 (1957): 16-22.
  • Singleton, Ralph H.  “How to Teach Punctuation.”  College English 6.2 (1944): 111-115.
  • Truss, Lynne.  Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  London: Gotham Books, 2003.

Peculiar Punctuation: The Interrobang

Ah, the exclamation point: the joy of English punctuation. No other punctuation mark has the power to affect the volume in which we read a sentence. The exclamation point conveys intensity that a simple period can’t achieve.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby (among other excellent works), wasn’t a big fan of exclamation points.

“Cut out all those exclamation points,” he said. “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

Scott sits, silently judging you and your “!”

Now more than ever, the exclamation point is forcibly paired up with its good friend, the question mark. I’m sure you’ve seen it all over Facebook and in emails from your relatives:

“Are you kidding me?!”

“WHAT?!”

“Can you believe we’re going to Paris next summer?!”

Sometimes, people get carried away:

“OMG, THAT’S SOOOO AWESOME!!!!!!!! Can I come too?!?!?!?!”

Whew. Okay, let’s take a step back. Believe it or not, it isn’t grammatically correct to use more than one form of punctuation to end a sentence. You have three choices: a full stop (period), a question mark, and an exclamation point:

What are we supposed to do now. [incorrect]
What are we supposed to do now? [correct]
What are we supposed to do now! [incorrect]

What if you had a fourth option? Some believe the combination of a question mark and an exclamation point should be acceptable and accessible:

What are we supposed to do now‽ [correct or incorrect?]

My college Creative Writing Professor called the pairing of a question mark and exclamation point “atrocious.” He said you either need one or the other, but not both. A good writer can convey panic and surprise simultaneously without tacking on an extra punctuation mark.

Let’s allow Fitzgerald to convey his point. In his novel The Beautiful and Damned (1922), Richard Caramel meets a woman named Muriel Kane, and he eloquently describes her:

Her fingernails were too long and ornate, polished to a pink and unnatural fever. Her clothes were too tight, too stylish, too vivid, her eyes too roguish, her smile too coy. She was almost pitifully overemphasized from head to foot.

I love the language Fitzgerald uses to describe Muriel, and this is a common style for him. He never would have said, “She was almost pitifully overemphasized from head to foot!” That would’ve detracted from the subtlety of his words. In the same book, Fitzgerald demonstrates why pairing a question mark and exclamation point is ineffective through a scene between the two main characters, Anthony and Gloria:

They rejoiced happily, gay again with reborn irresponsibility. Then he told her of his opportunity to go abroad, and that he was almost ashamed to reject it.

“What do you think? Just tell me frankly.”

“Why, Anthony!” Her eyes were startled. “Do you want to go? Without me?”

His face fell—yet he knew, with his wife’s question, that is was too late. Her arms, sweet and strangling, were around him…

Fitzgerald knew better than to punctuate Gloria’s cries like this: “Do you want to go?! Without me?!” The reader knows her voice is raised in concern and she is panicked; we don’t need the exclamation point to understand that.

However, many writers don’t agree with Fitzgerald and have developed a loving relationship with both the question mark and the exclamation point.

In 1962, an advertising agent named Martin K. Speckter conceptualized a new punctuation mark: the interrobang, a fusion of a question mark (or interrogative mark) and an exclamation point (known in the printing world as a “bang“). He believed his ads would look more polished if he could use a single mark to convey the meaning of two. He introduced the concept in an article in TYPEtalks Magazine, and it caught on well enough to be included in several typewriter models and dictionaries. However, by the end of the decade, the fad fizzled out.

Nowadays, you won’t find the interrobang on any keyboard. However, it’s starting to gain new momentum in an age when the question mark and exclamation point are paired up more often than ever. Now, let’s work on those sentences from before:

“Are you kidding me‽”

“WHAT‽”

“Can you believe we’re going to Paris next summer‽”

Nevertheless, the interrobang is slightly impractical as it is. It takes a complicated keyboard shortcut to type (ALT+8253) and, unless you learn the mark at the same time you learn to write, it’s difficult to incorporate into a well-established handwriting set. For me, my question marks are too curvy to accommodate a straight exclamation point, making writing an interrobang awkward and uncomfortable.

While the mark remains a clever idea, it still isn’t considered standard punctuation and won’t be accepted in an academic environment. In casual conversation, though, feel free to impress your friends with your knowledge of this quirky mark.

In the News: American Dialects

Ten days ago, Josh Katz and Wilson Andrews published a dialect quiz on The New York Times website called “How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk.” Since its publication, the quiz has circulated through social media and many of my Facebook friends have shared it. Part of its success is, no doubt, the commendable way The New York Times has adapted to current technology trends: at the end of the quiz, readers are encouraged to “share” their map with friends and family through social media.

However, the main reason why the quiz has been so popular is because it reveals a novelty trait about the good ol’ US of A: we are all so incredibly different, it’s amazing we all manage to coexist (I use that word liberally, of course). We span 3,794,101 square miles and six time zones. Until fairly recently, we were not audibly interconnected. The introduction of “talkies” (talking movies, as opposed to silent films) in the late 1920s—as well as the advancement of radio and, later, broadcast television—began to reveal to the masses just how differently we spoke from each other. Before mass audio communication, Americans communicated through written word: telegrams, newspapers, pamphlets, and letters. Different pockets of the population (New York factory workers, southern plantation owners, western settlers) developed their own speech patterns.

As I’ve mentioned before, Americans sound alike on paper (aside from informal grammar and local slang), but in person we sound like different nationalities. In fact, only 80% of Americans speak English at all.

Taking the Times quiz is a pretty fun experience. You will be asked things like, “How do you pronounce ‘aunt’?” and “How would you address a group of two or more people?” It’s interesting to see all of the answer choices. Your choice should stand out immediately, and this thought will probably cross your mind at least once: “All of those other choices are weird and stupid.”

“Yinz”? Seriously, y’all?

Another reason why the quiz has been shared so much is that it’s eerily accurate. By taking a short survey about your speech patterns, the quiz can pinpoint either where you live or where you were raised. Mine is a great example:

I was born in Amarillo and lived in the area until I was five. My family then lived in Abilene and Midland, both of which are within two hours from Lubbock. I currently live about 20 miles from Irving. How did the quiz know where I’ve lived? It’s not coincidence, not magic. Mr. Katz and Mr. Andrews have undoubtedly dedicated years of their lives to linguistic research so your Aunt Dee-Dee could post, “LOOOOK Evrybdy this quiz is cray cray! Try it NOWWW!!!”

Almost a year ago, a trend started popping up on YouTube called “The Accent Tag.” The challenge encouraged YouTube users to read a list of words in their own unique accent and answer questions similar to what you would find in the Times quiz. The users could then tag their video as “The Accent Tag” so other users could find it and compare it to their own accents.

Here is “The Accent Tag” Challenge:

The Words to Read Out Loud:
Aunt, Roof, Route, Wash, Oil, Theater, Iron, Salmon, Caramel, Fire, Water, Sure, Data, Ruin, Crayon, New Orleans, Pecan, Both, Again, Probably, Spitting image, Alabama, Lawyer, Coupon, Mayonnaise, Syrup, Pajamas, Caught, Naturally, Aluminium, Envelope

The Questions to Answer:

  1. What is it called when you throw toilet paper on a house?
  2. What is the bug that when you touch it, it curls into a ball?
  3. What is the bubbly carbonated drink called?
  4. What do you call gym shoes?
  5. What do you say to address a group of people?
  6. What do you call the kind of spider (or spider-like creature) that has an oval-shaped body and extremely long legs?
  7. What do you call your grandparents?
  8. What do you call the wheeled contraption in which you carry groceries at the supermarket?
  9. What do you call it when rain falls while the sun is shining?
  10. What is the thing you change the TV channel with?

The point of the challenge was to draw attention to different accents and speech patterns. One of my favorite examples is the word “fire.” Most Americans pronounce this word with two syllables: fy-rr. Some parts of New England might pronounce it fy-uh. In Texas, some of us tend to cut this down to one syllable: farr, or fyrr. As a concrete example, I present to you an entrepreneur selling firewood down the road from my university:

I’ve also noticed that other syllables get lost in some parts of the US. “Probably” becomes “prob-ly,” “naturally” becomes “natch-ur-ly,” “mayonnaise” becomes “man-aiz.”

I’ve found several examples of different American accents, but I wanted start with British actor Hugh Laurie, who played American Dr. Gregory House on the television show House M.D. Here is a brief clip from the show. Pay attention to his American accent.

Pretty convincing, huh? He talks about using an American accent in this interview with David Letterman. (You can stop watching around the 2:40 mark, when they change subjects.)

Here’s an example of a Texan accent I hear very often around here. (Don’t watch the whole video. Just watch the first ten seconds or so and move on with your life.)

This is a girl participating in the Accent Tag challenge, this time from Southern California. Again, ignore the content and pay attention to her speech patterns:

Here’s a clip from the 1996 movie Fargo that does a good job of portraying the American midwestern accent:

Here’s a good example of a Boston accent:

Finally, here is a Cajun man from Louisiana explaining how cook his favorite meal. Don’t worry, I can’t understand a word, either.

Not only do these two experiments (the TImes quiz and The Accent Tag challenge) show how different words are pronounced differently, but they also show how different colloquialisms refer to the same things. The most famous example in America is the sweet, carbonated beverage we all enjoy:

The choices given are: soda, pop, coke, and soft drink. Where I live, we call everything “coke,” even if it’s Sprite, Dr. Pepper, or Coca-Cola. I know, it doesn’t make any sense, but we’re firmly rooted in our ways. However, I will admit that “soda” is more practical. “Soft drink” is a little to stiff for me, and “pop” sounds a little silly. What this map shows, though, is my previous point: different pockets of culture in the US have developed their own language patterns. In the above map, you can clearly see the line between the American South, the Midwest, and the Coasts. In Texas, the pocket of red that matches the Coasts is centered around Austin, which famously has its own culture apart from the rest of the South. You can also see pockets of red around big cities like Chicago and St. Louis.

To learn more about different language patterns in the United States, I strongly encourage you to check out a documentary series on PBS called “Do You Speak American?” On their website, you can find the type of highly pedantic language dissection that I love, including a list of commonly mispronounced words you should stop mispronouncing, or else; several articles addressing language prejudice; and a hot debate about which American dialect is “correct.”

You can watch the second installment below, which explores southern American English: