As with practically every country in the world, the accents found throughout the United States change from region to region, and at times from state to state. However, as easy as it can be to pick out a Boston or Southern accent and still understand it, another concept exists that presents more difficulties when it comes to comprehension, and that is the existence of different dialects within the United States.
In 2003, Dr. Bert Vaux, a former Harvard professor who now teaches at the University of Cambridge, devised a list of various vocabulary terms and expressions and, armed with this ‘test,’ asked tens of thousands of people across the country how their personal lexicons compared to the distinctions he had come up with. His goal was to be able to place certain vocabulary usages and accents within distinct regions, in this way forming a sort of dialect map. Two years ago, a graduate student at North Carolina State University did just that: he created an online quiz that, using its own results, produces a heat map that shows where the borders of different dialects lie. Then, last year, The Atlantic magazine took some of Vaux’s original questions, and called people all over the country, creating their own ‘heat map’ that lights up every time a caller gives their answer (it’s a very interesting video; search ‘Soda vs. Pop vs. Coke: Mapping How Americans Talk’ if you’re interested).
The first questions that the study asks is: what’s your generic term for a sweet carbonated beverage? As multiple callers answer with the word ‘soda,’ the West Coast (where this writer is from) and New England light up. Some say ‘pop,’ and the Midwest (where my family is from) flashes brilliantly. And the last callers, hailing from the South and betraying any sense of brand variety, answer ‘coke.’
The next question: what do you call a long sandwich that contains cold cuts (different types of meat, like ham or turkey), lettuce, etc? Along the Atlantic seaboard, from Washington DC to Boston, it’s known as a ‘hero’. In Pennsylvania? A hoagie. In the South? ‘A po’ boy. And in the rest of the country? ‘A sub’.
When it comes to simple vocabulary differences, there are many examples to point to (see expressway vs. highway vs. freeway), but there are pronunciation variations that also indicate linguistic differences throughout the country. For example, when you think of the pronunciation of ‘bag,’ most people imagine it rhyming with ‘snag.’ However, where my relatives live in the Midwest, it’s practically pronounced like the verb ‘to beg’ (for further research on this accent, watch the very funny film “Fargo” by the Cohen brothers).
We can witness a more grammar-related distinction when we consider how you address two or more people. Throughout the West (including the Midwest), this would be ‘you guys.’ Down south, it’s ‘ya’ll,’ which is a contraction of the words ‘you all.’ And on the East Coast, especially from New Jersey out to Philadelphia? Youse! Although these are just a few linguistic patterns that exist now, nobody knows where the borders will be in the future, or how dialects will change. Perhaps Dr. Vaux will have another study ready to let us know how things change!
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