My linguistic map, according to the NYT


I took this quiz to which Bryan drew my attention. It’s one that places you regionally in terms of, well, your terms — not your accent, but by the regionalism expressed in your choice of words.

I’m a little suspicious of the result. For the most part, it shows some influence from the places where I’ve lived. Almost everywhere I’ve ever lived is within the “more similar” areas, with the exception of Woodbury, NJ, which I think had a significant impact on the way I use language.

I think the reason I seem so Southern on the map is that I said that I use “y’all” as a second-person plural pronoun. Other than that one answer, which rang the Southern bell so loudly, I usually found myself distributed more widely across the country (the quiz gives you a map for each answer). And that would have been watered down if the test had allowed me to answer both “y’all” and “you,” which would have been accurate.

But hey, today, I’m going to be dismissive of anything the NYT has to say

UPDATE: Suspicious of the “y’all” bias in the test, which I felt anchored me as Southern no matter how I answered the other questions (two of the three Southern cities in which the test placed me — neither of which I ever lived in — were based on “y’all”), I went in and took the test again. This time, I answered “you,” which is accurate because I say that for the plural as well (when I lived in New Jersey in the 2nd grade, I would say, “youse guys,” so I could have stretched a point and answered that way).

This time, the test threw me a couple of curves and asked questions about two other words. I was asked how I pronounce “lawyer” and whether I call soft drinks “soda” or “pop” or whatever. I knew that “soda” would place me in the South, but that was the obvious answer. What shocked me was that pronouncing “lawyer” properly — clearly enunciating “law” and “yer” — also marked me as Southern (specifically, as being from what Memphis calls the “Mid-South” — could that be because I used to cover courts in that region?). Two of the three cities in which I was placed (Birmingham and Columbus, GA) were based on that. Which is weird, because Memphis would have made more sense, it being the dominant population center of the region that lit up when I answered the way I did.

Oh — and it also asked me about a pet peeve. I HATE it when I hear people call nighttime attire “puh-JAM-uhs.” Obviously, it is “pa-JAH-mas.” But answering that correctly also made me Southern. Go figure (which I’m pretty sure is Yankee talk).

My second result.

My second result — if anything, I came out more distinctly Southern.

37 thoughts on “My linguistic map, according to the NYT

  1. Mark Stewart

    My result was Napa Valley, CA. Or some city/town which now escapes me north of Santa Rosa anyway.

    Close as I’m an Oregonian; but I would have thought way off as I’ve lived almost 2/3rds of my life, so far, on the East Coast. On the other hand, my secondary hotspot was in Northern Virginia, so maybe that covered things…the South itself was definitely a cold spot – as was the Midwest north to south.

    Wherever I am, people always know I am from someplace else. Which is funny since I don’t think I have an accent at all. TV generic for sure…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    On a semi-related topic, NPR has a story headlined, “How Language Seems To Shape One’s View Of The World.”

    An excerpt:

    Lera Boroditsky once did a simple experiment: She asked people to close their eyes and point southeast. A room of distinguished professors in the U.S. pointed in almost every possible direction, whereas 5-year-old Australian aboriginal girls always got it right.

    She says . Boroditsky, an associate professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, says the Australian aboriginal language doesn’t use words like left or right. It uses compass points, so they say things like “that girl to the east of you is my sister.”

    If you want to learn another language and become fluent, you may have to change the way you behave in small but sometimes significant ways, specifically how you sort things into categories and what you notice….

    Of course, there are detractors of the notion that language shapes thinking. From what I’ve gathered, academics have been fighting ferociously over this for some time.

    I think there’s something to the idea that language shapes thought, although I wouldn’t say it explains everything….

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I tend to go along with Jubal Harshaw’s assertion that language affects the “map” of your thoughts.

      But there’s also reason to believe that we can transcend language. For instance, there are Spanish words that have no English counterpart, and vice versa. Therefore, you can’t make a coherent translation from one language to the other with just a cross-dictionary. To make a good translation, you have to be able to think in both languages. And the fact that one is able to HAVE the thought in different languages, despite a lack of word-to-word correspondence, suggests that human intellectual experience transcends language.

      Just to digress…

      I always expect different languages to have profound differences, mainly because I was so deeply embarrassed as a 9-year-old in Ecuador trying to do translate based on faulty assumptions before I became fluent. One instance that tripped me up… we have various ways of using the word “time” in English, to mean widely different things. We use it to refer to the phenomenon that waits for no man, for which Spanish-speakers would say “tiempo.” We use it to refer to a particular occurrence of something, as in “How many times did you do it?” or “Would you like to try another time?” But the Spanish for that concept is “vez.” Then, there is “What time is it?” The Spanish word that would substitute for “time” in that sentence is “hora.”

      I got extremely frustrated one day trying to ask a couple of people who spoke no English what time it was. I kept saying, with increasing intensity, ¿Qué vez es? There was actually no way that someone who didn’t speak English could even have made a wild guess at what I was trying to say.

      Anyway, I came to EXPECT those kinds of differences, and never expect words with several very different meanings in English to have corresponding Spanish words with all those same senses.

      Which is why I tend to be amazed when there is such a correspondence. Take “right,” for instance. When you say “Turn to the right,” the Spanish word is “derecha.” But when you use it as something wildly different from a direction, as in, “You have no right to do that,” the word is the same, with a different ending — “derecho.”

      How did that happen? Did one language have an undue influence on the other (as English did on Spanish, in a different way, in forming such sports terms as “béisbol” and “fútbol“)? It mystifies me…

      1. Kevin Dietrich

        I’ve always been rather amazed at individuals who are able to translate poetry into different languages, and can still come up with equivalent words that rhyme. Seems like a daunting task.

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    I was Charlotte a and Greensboro. I guess that accounts for growing up in multi-linguistic Aiken

  4. Doug Ross

    Mine is pretty accurate… Boston/Worcester/Providence…. since I grew up in Massachusetts.

    I think you could get a good read on someone from three questions:

    athletic shoes are sneakers
    aunt rhymes with ant
    carbonated drink is tonic

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      My nieces and nephews who grew up on Cape Cod call me Awnt Kathryn. Cape Cod is awfully close to where you’re from.

  5. Burl Burlingame

    I took the NYT quiz, and it had me as native everywhere in the United States except Minnesota, doncha’know.

    Some years ago I interviewed a speech expert who advises actors on their accents, and I asked her if she could peg my accent. She responded that I had no discernible regional accent, and than stated flatly that I must have been either a military or State Dept. dependent.


    Brad is right about military dependents being able to pick up on accents quickly. Mary Wertsch wrote that this is a survival skill, a way of quickly blending into a “local” culture. To this day, I have to watch out for that, lest the person I’m talking to thinks I’m mocking their speech patterns.

    English, by the way, is the language most likely to be still understood despite how badly it’s pronounced. That’s why it’s the language of air traffic control,

  6. Norm Ivey

    I was most similar across the south (I’ve been here 30 years; both parents are from North Carolina), but was impressed that my next most similar region was southern Arizona, where I grew up. My map was mostly warm-colored, with the only blue spots in the northeast and northwest and a very mild blue in Minnesota.

    I call crayons Crayolas. I’m not sure when I started doing that, but it’s been at least most of my adult life. Soda was Coke as a kid, but now I mostly say soda unless I mean Coca-Cola.

    I had a professor at Carolina who was able to identify your region of origin using this same concept coupled with your accent. He was unable to identify my origin other than to say I wasn’t a native speaker of Southern dialect. He was extremely accurate with students who had lived their entire life in one area. I can’t remember the exact course name, but it was some sort of History of the English Language class. I really enjoyed it much more than I would have thought. I still find the topic interesting. This professor called English a lazy language in that it freely borrowed words from other languages, whereas Romance languages tend to remain chaste. Baseball and football are English words borrowed by Spanish (and other) languages, however.

  7. Scout

    I took it and got Jackson, Montgomery, and one other Southern city – can’t remember now which one. It got Winston-Salem – Greensboro – Richmond for my husband who grew up in Winston Salem. Most people I’ve known to have taken it seem to think it’s pretty accurate. My family is from Louisiana originally though I’ve been in Columbia since I was 3. Even though it didn’t say Columbia for me, I remember that it had the same colors as Jackson and Montgomery over Columbia on the map. People tell me I don’t sound like I have an accent though, whatever that means. I have no explanation for why that is, since I’ve been here most of the time.

    I think it should have asked about the pronunciation of “Pecan” and “Louisiana”. My family has always said those different from what is most common around here. We say (pu-KAHN) and (LOO-zi-AN-a). I remember my grandparents saying “Louisiana” a little differently even – they got 5 syllables in there but the stress was different than the common “lu-WEE-zi-AN-a”. It was more like “LOO-is-zi-AN-a” with “is” pronounced just like the verb and not stressed. They did something similar with New Orleans – it was kind of like the vowels just rolled around in their mouth without ever becoming a long stressed vowel on the “eans” part. They definately got 3 syllables on the “orleans” part but it was something like “OR-li-uns”. I tend to say something more like “OR-lins” with 2 syllables. I don’t know why. I find it all very interesting.

  8. Karen Pearson

    Interesting. According to the test I’m from somewhere in Georgia or Alabama. I was born in Billings, MT, raised in Charlotte, NC, did undergrad in New Orleans, and have been here since. Neither of my parents were from NC and MT.

  9. Bart

    Weird – mine was closer to Michigan, Louisiana, and New York with a lesser connection to South Carolina. I guess living for several years outside the Carolinas where I grew up and travelling as much as I did gave me the opportunity to learn more than just the local colloquialisms and integrate them into my speech pattern.

    Occasionally I think back to my Dad who was a great guy and one of the best men I have ever known but not well educated in terms of language. Imagine my shock around the age of 8 or 9 when I first heard the correct pronunciation of the word “bomb”. For years my Dad would talk about our “erplanes was bumming” the enemy in WWII. Or hearing the word rinse pronounced as it is supposed to be. For the longest time all I ever heard was the word “wrench”. My Dad would tell me to “wrench the wash rag out real good” when I was through using it. The irony of it all – my Dad could complete most crossword puzzles accurately using a ball point pen.

    1. Scout

      Dialect is in no way an indicator of intelligence though people tend to have subconscious biases towards assuming that non-standard dialects correlate with low intelligence. They don’t. On the contrary, if you are able to become a fluent speaker of the dialect you were raised hearing, then your intelligence capabilities are working like they are supposed to.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        I think some of this prejudice arises from the fact that until fairly recently, regional accents did not correlate with higher education. In England, it is still true that students at Oxford and Cambridge strive to adopt the Oxbridge accent.
        Then there is sloppy writing and acting for movies and television where a regional accent stands in for actual characterization. Ray MacKinnon and Walton Goggins made several acclaimed films with characters of all intelligences who had southern accents and one won the Oscar for short film, The Accountant. Check it out on Netflix. See also, Justified.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I’m fascinated by the British actors playing Southerners on “The Walking Dead.” (What, they couldn’t find a single actor in Georgia who could play a sheriff’s deputy?)

          Oh, for that matter, I’m fascinated by Brits playing Americans in everything these days. In “Band of Brothers,” Easy Company was full of them, possibly because the producers were going for relatively unknown faces…

          Now, Damian Lewis is making a career out of playing American military men (see “Homeland”)…

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            Brits are either cheaper or better trained, or both. We are struck by the difference in Tremendous between the top actors like Melissa Leo, Khandi Alexander and Wendell Pierce, and the musicians and locals who cannot sell the parts nearly as well.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Replying to Scout above (“if you are able to become a fluent speaker of the dialect you were raised hearing, then your intelligence capabilities are working like they are supposed to”), I’ll confess to a certain doubt.

        I find myself wondering about people who are younger than I am and have strong regional accents. Were they utterly unaffected by all the TV and films and other media around them all these years, which you would think would spread out their speech patterns a bit, make them less specific?

        Also, I’m tempted to see them as less adaptable that people with more General American accents. Which is perhaps unfair. It may be a basic prejudice that comes with being a Navy brat.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          I have noticed that even among siblings, one will rapidly acclimate to a new regional accent, or not ave one, while another retains the birth accent. People are different.

        2. Scout

          I’m not sure but I think it makes a difference whether the exposure to a dialect is just receptive or whether it is an interactive functional experience. Just being exposed through TV and media (i.e. receptively) may not be enough to affect expressive language behavior too much. I think you have to use the dialect to interact and functionally communicate with real people in order for it to really affect your speech patterns. (i.e. with lots of in the moment interactive expressive learning opportunities). So it will be the language of the people you physically interact with and converse with on a daily basis that will come out in your own speech.

      3. Bart

        I agree Scout that dialect is not an indicator of intelligence since America has a wide range of dialects and some are easy to understand, others not. Often I was surprised at the high level of intelligence when working with some people whose language skills were lacking and incomprehensible at times.

  10. Rose

    I took it twice. First, as myself. My results were generally warm across the country, with blue in the northwest, Ohio area, the Dakotas, and a small area in Massachusetts. My cities were listed as Augusta-Richmond (for yard sale) and Montgomery and Huntsville (for lawyer). I’ve lived in SC all my life, so I wonder how they make those city determinations. Why would “yard sale” indicate Alabama as opposed to Charlotte?

    For the second time, I answered as my grandparents would have, to see what generational differences there may be. I know a lot of the terms that I don’t use myself, because I heard my grandparents using them. (Like “kitty corner” and “the devil’s beating his wife”). The results: solid South.
    I also expect that educational levels would really affect the results.

    Some of the questions were different. And not quite right. It’s not a “poor boy” it’s a “po’ boy.” And it is in no way equivalent to a sub or hoagie. A po’ boy has oysters, or maybe shrimp.

    Also, “kitty wampus” is not the same thing as “kitty corner.” (And my granddaddy always said “catty wampus). Kitty corner is diagonally across. Kitty/catty wampus means something is askew, like “All of the those pictures on the wall are catty wampus.”

    And why didn’t they include interstate (or “innerstate”) for the road question?

    I would also suggest they add “crack a window”. My dad said that all the time. Drove my mom nuts.

    1. bud

      I was puzzled by the interstate omission also. Also, a roundabout and a traffic circle are distinctly different things. A roundabout is much smaller.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        In your lingo. I don’t make a distinction, and call all such intersections traffic circles, unless I am in Britain (roundabout) or New England (rotary). When in Rome….

      2. Norm Ivey

        I don’t necessarily consider an Interstate and a highway (or freeway) the same thing. I capitalize Interstate, and it only means roads such as I26, I20 and I77. A highway (or freeway) can refer to any road that allows me to travel relatively long distances at relatively high speeds such as US378, US1 or US21.

        Any round intersection is a traffic circle to me.

        1. Norm Ivey

          To clarify–for me, an Interstate is a divided highway with limited access designed and built as part of the National Defense Interstate Highway System.

  11. Ralph Hightower

    The reddest states are Alabama and Mississippi. But I was born and raised in South Carolina. Perhaps, if I used tractor-trailer instead of 18-wheeler, I’d be more South Carolina. I took it twice and got different questions. But still, South Carolina is still red.

    Probably, some good questions are: “Do you know what sweet tea is?” “Do you like boiled peanuts?”

    When I was in Cedar Rapids, IA, my wife would ship me green peanuts from South Carolina so I could boil them.

  12. Burl Burlingame

    To further confuse things, Brit-speak-wise, I was educated in three years of grade school by teachers based in Hong Kong, and to this day I’ll slip and say things like SHED-YOOL instead of SKED-JOOL (schedule). And my unconscious preference for British spelling (stuff like GREY instead of GRAY) has been the bane of my copy editors.

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