With just 11 days before the end of 2013, The New York Times posted a dialect quiz on its website that drew in millions of readers, making it the site’s most popular page for the year. The quiz is designed to pinpoint the quiz-taker’s exact region, based on the words he or she uses.
The graphics intern who created the mapping algorithm, Josh Katz, was hired for a full-time position and Bert Vaux, the linguist who created the data for the test, began to see an uptick in the activity on his website.
Vaux, a linguistics professor at Cambridge University in England, says when he started teaching at Harvard University in the early 1990s, he noticed a gradual change in the way his students spoke.
He says that for the first couple of weeks, students displayed accents and used words that originated in certain parts of the country, but within several weeks’ time they had all adopted a standard form of American English that made it hard to identify what region they were from.
So Vaux created a dialect survey that he distributed to his students where they would identify words they used in their native regions. He joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss his research.
Interview Highlights: Bert Vaux
On how he started this research
“It started when I began teaching at Harvard in the mid-’90s. I wanted to be able to figure out where people were from who didn’t have a noticeable accent — and that would include you. So I started researching what people know about dialects of English, and I found out that everything that was available at that time was from the ’30s and ’40s and ’60s and it was largely collected from old white male farmers. And I decided to start collecting material that was relevant to speakers then, especially to students in my class.”
On the difference between ‘dinner’ and ‘supper’
“I put that on my survey originally because many of my students had strong opinions about what dinner and supper meant. But when I actually ran the survey, I found there wasn’t any coherent regional distribution. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, dinner and supper are sort of randomly spread out, with a few exceptions. One is, people in the western U.S. generally only have dinner, not supper. And then people in the upper central part of the United States — North and South Dakota and Kansas — tend to respond that they have dinner and supper, but dinner is earlier than supper.”
On where people call a water fountain a ‘bubbler’
“That’s very interesting. I first came across that in college in Chicago because my roommate was from Milwaukee and he said that in Milwaukee they called the water fountain a bubbler. And I thought that was pretty funny. But then when I moved to Boston when I was 21, I discovered that everyone there said bubbler too. And each one thinks that they are the only area in the country that uses bubbler. But actually, when you look into it, it turns out that Kohler, the person associated with the company that makes fancy bathroom products, invented the bubbler and he was based in the Milwaukee area. And his term for the thing that he created then spread eastward to the inland north and reached all the way to Boston.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. Did you take that New York Times dialect test? It was released just 11 days before 2013, and it became the most popular page on the New York Times site for the whole year. It's a blast. They list words, and you pick the one you use to describe an event or a thing, and then they literally tell you where you're from.
And in our experience, it's been pretty accurate. But we also wondered who uses the words we don't, words like looky-loo. Well, we've heard of that; those are people who stop to look at accidents. But what about pineapple rain or peanie wally? The intern who created the test, Josh Katz, is now a staff member of the New York Times. But he used the research of Bert Vaux, this is a linguistics professor at Cambridge University in England.
And we thought we'd ask him who says what. Professor, Bert, welcome.
BERT VAUX: Thank you.
YOUNG: How did this start, this idea of asking people oh, what do you call that small road parallel to the highway? Do you call it a frontage road or a service road or an access road? How did that start?
VAUX: It started when I began teaching at Harvard in the mid-'90s. I wanted to be able to figure out where people were from who didn't have a noticeable accent, and that would include you. So I started researching what people know about dialects of English, and I found out that everything that was available at that time was from the '30s and '40s and '60s, and it was largely collected from old white male farmers.
And I decided to start collecting material that was relevant to speakers then, especially the students in my class.
YOUNG: Well, it's just amazing. You have many more questions than the ones that were refined for the New York Times list. But let me just throw one out. When you have a sale of things in your front yard, people call it a tag sale or a yard sale or a garage sale or a rummage sale, stoop sale. Those all make sense. But as to the question of what you call what happens when it's raining when the sun is out, who calls that the wolf is giving birth?
VAUX: It's found mainly in North Africa and parts of the Middle East.
YOUNG: Well, here are a couple others. This is one of my favorites because I do call it a sunshower, but in some parts of the world they call it pineapple rain or liquid sun. Where do they call it a liquid sun?
VAUX: Those are actually found sporadically both in Hawaii. The words that you find for a sunshower are remarkably similar around the world. So for example, the devil's beating his wife, which you find in the south of the U.S., is also found in Burgundy in France and in Damascus in Syria and isolated spots throughout Western Europe, and the list goes on and on.
YOUNG: Another one, I was doing it with friends, the strip of grass between a sidewalk and a curb in the street, that little strip of grass. I don't have any word for that, it's the grass. But a friend of mine from Utah calls it a park.
VAUX: Yeah, there's a parkway, some call it a median. My favorite is devil strip, which you find in Akron, Ohio.
YOUNG: Just in Akron, Ohio?
VAUX: Yeah, it used to be wider spread, but it's ended up surviving only in Akron.
YOUNG: Which is why this is so unbelievably accurate. For me, after I finished the quiz, it said you were born and raised in New York and spent time in Boston. Whoa.
YOUNG: But the words, again, have raised a lot of questions. Our colleague Erica had a question about another question on the quiz. It's what do you call the night before Halloween, and some of the possibilities were gate night, trick night, but she says who calls the night before Halloween anything?
VAUX: Yeah, most Americans have no term for it, but there are relics of the old British terms and Germanic terms that were brought over from Europe in pockets of the eastern half of the United States. So for example, mischief night you find along the East Coast going from Delaware up through New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, and also in coastal Connecticut, which is where I first heard it.
And cabbage night survives in western New England, and goosey night actually around the New York City area. The most widespread and robust is Devil's Night in Michigan.
YOUNG: Really quite something. Another is the distinction between dinner and supper, and the possible choices are supper is an evening meal, then dinner is eaten earlier; supper is an evening meal, dinner is the main meal; dinner takes place in a more formal setting than supper; there's no distinction, they both have the same meaning; I don't use the word supper; I don't use the word dinner. Where are some of those words spoken?
VAUX: Well, I put that on my survey originally because many of my students had strong opinions about what dinner and supper meant. But when I actually ran the survey, I found there wasn't any coherent regional distribution. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, dinner and supper are sort of randomly spread out, with a few exceptions.
One is, people in the western U.S. generally only have dinner, not supper. And then people in the upper central part of the United States, North and South Dakota and Kansas, tend to respond that they have dinner and supper, but dinner is earlier than supper.
YOUNG: Huh. Where do people call a water fountain a bubbler?
VAUX: That's very interesting. I first came across that in college in Chicago because my roommate was from Milwaukee, and he said that in Milwaukee they called the water fountain a bubbler. And I thought that was pretty funny. But then when I moved to Boston when I was 21, I discovered that everyone there said bubbler too.
And each one thinks that they are the only area in the country that uses bubbler. But actually, when you look into it, it turns out that Kohler, the person associated with the company that makes fancy bathroom products, invented the bubbler, and he was based in the Milwaukee area. And his term for the thing he created then spread eastward to the inland north and reached all the way to Boston.
YOUNG: That must have been my points off for Boston because I still call it a water fountain. But here in Boston, they call that round thing where cars go round and round, they call it a rotary. Other places call it a roundabout or a traffic circle. Where do they call it a traffic circus?
VAUX: That's mainly in Singapore and Malaysia, but you can see relics of circus used in that sense in England, actually, like in Piccadilly Circus, which was originally a roundabout-shaped area.
YOUNG: Well, it is just fantastic. When you take your own quiz, by the way, does it get you right?
VAUX: It does, though I'm a bit tough because I'm half from Houston and half from Chicago. And Josh's algorithm identifies me as being from the Chicago area. There are a few things that give me away as having lived in Houston, such as calling the little bug that rolls into a ball, the roly-poly pillbug one, a doodlebug.
YOUNG: A doodlebug, that's where you ask what do you call the little wormlike creature, the little bug where if you poke it in the stomach it curls up. What were some of the choices?
VAUX: O, there are hundreds in the United States, actually. The main ones are roly-poly, pillbug, (unintelligible), doodlebug. And then when you go outside of the U.S., there are terms like wood louse, (unintelligible). I could go on and on.
YOUNG: Well, it's just really unbelievable. It's amazingly accurate. We'll link people to it at hereandnow.org. Bert Vaux, linguistics professor at Cambridge University in England, the man behind the dialect quiz, thanks so much.
VAUX: My pleasure.
YOUNG: And Jeremy, you've been taking it while we've been talking. How'd you do?
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
For the second time, actually. The first time it said Indianapolis, which is pretty close. This time it said St. Louis is one of the cities that I sound like, and I'm actually from the point almost equidistant between those two cities, in Champagne-Urbana.
YOUNG: Isn't that something?
HOBSON: One of the things I do, by the way, Robin, is I say Mary, merry and marry all sound the same, that's M-A-R-Y, M-A-R-R-Y and M-E-R-R-Y.
YOUNG: Right, which nails you for Midwest.
HOBSON: You of course don't do that.
YOUNG: No, are you kidding? They're three distinct words. Well, here are some others. What did you say for the little bugs that light up and glow in the dark?
HOBSON: Lightning bug.
YOUNG: Yeah, some call them firefly. But if you call it peanie wally, you might be from...
HOBSON: Who does that?
YOUNG: Jamaicans. That's what they call it. Here are some more. How do you address a group, you all, youse, yins?
HOBSON: I sometimes say you guys, unfortunately.
YOUNG: You guys. Well, if you say yins, that's Pittsburgh, and they're proud of it. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.