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.”
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:
- What is it called when you throw toilet paper on a house?
- What is the bug that when you touch it, it curls into a ball?
- What is the bubbly carbonated drink called?
- What do you call gym shoes?
- What do you say to address a group of people?
- What do you call the kind of spider (or spider-like creature) that has an oval-shaped body and extremely long legs?
- What do you call your grandparents?
- What do you call the wheeled contraption in which you carry groceries at the supermarket?
- What do you call it when rain falls while the sun is shining?
- 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: