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Monday, April 25, 2011

Potato, Potahto: Linguist Uses Internet To Take A Language Census

(nicasaurusrex/Flickr)

(nicasaurusrex/Flickr)

How do say “roof”? How do you pronounce “caught”?

The way you say certain words might have something to do with your ethnicity or where you live, according to Claire Bowern, associate professor of Linguistics at Yale University and co-creator of the North American Dialects Survey.

The project uses the Internet to collect samples of how people around North America say a list of short English words. Bowern hopes that the results will give a portrait of how English varies with geography, ethnicity and across time.

Bowern has updated results from the census online.


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  • Doughardy

    Robin re:Indiana’s ‘neutral’ accent — Kurt Vonnegut wrote that his Hoosier accent “Sounds like a bandsaw cutting galvanized tin.”

  • Sara

    As a New Jersey native (south Jersey to be exact, with a distinctive vowel inflection that is easy to pick out, kinda Philly accent-like) married to a North Carolina man, living in Eastern NC (like its own state) I’m always tickled by accent and pronounciation differences. I say ahn for on, the opposite of off. My ENC counterparts say own! “Cut the lat own” is what I hear instead of cut the light on…lol

    • Dfelsing

      I grew up in NJ and my name is Dawn, I currently live in VT. I have lived in FL and CA and nowhere, other than NJ and NYC, do people pronounce my name so it is distinguisable from Don. Particularly troublesome since my ex-husbands name was Don.

      • Jared

        I live in Vermont, and would pronounce your name as “Don” even though my parents are not native Vermonters! Sorry!

  • Ladybug

    Johnny Carson was from Nebraska not Indiana?

  • JimJ from KC

    Interesting piece, Johnny Carson was from Nebraska. Hmmm. Do they have accents? I grew up in Iowa and made a conscious effort to “sound” like the dictionary. We moved away and now I don’t sound like “them” anymore. Not sure why unless my parents had moved away and we came back. Thanks for the thoughts.

  • Ralpheatsbeef

    English: I have no idea about the water.
    Boston: I have no idee-uhr about the wat-uh.

    The supposedly well-educated Bostonian would take the “r” from “water” and advance to finish “idea” … Why? What’s the root of this misuse of “r” in the cradle of American higher education?

    • Agent2187

      The adding and dropping of the “r” is similar to a British accent. I always assumed the Northeastern accent just hasn’t strayed as much from the British accent. Notice, for example, the way British speakers say “Obamer”. But that is my unscientific opinion.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HDSC2GIYZDIVWPQCECTBACJSEA D

        Actually, the British ‘r’ phenomenon is much more recent.

  • Michigander

    I’m sorry, but your guest’s comment about Detroit was completely off the mark! As a native Michigander who’s lived in SE Michigan (Detroit suburbs) for over twenty years and is very sensitive to dialects, I can assure you that you will not hear “bag” pronounced “bee-agg” around here (unless, of course, you happen to be talking to someone visiting from certain parts of New England). Closer to the Ohio border, you may hear more of a “Midwestern twang” but tune into most newscasts originating from the area and you’ll likely find difficulty identifying the geographical origin of the speaker. The Upper Peninsula (a.k.a. “Da UP”) is also very distinctive (with Canadian/Wisconsin/Minnesota influences), but “down state” is much more neutral.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.seibold Seiboldtsdorf Mark

    What can be said (sed) about other regions accents that has not been (s~yad?)
    What I found they forgot was the oxymoron they stated several times. They forgot the now most famous place in the nation where they all move to- Portland Oregon [Properly pronounced [Ory-gun] (not Partland Arrr-uh-Gone’.) For we are not known as the voice-over capitol for nothing (and not nuthin.) I have wondered why people ask me for many years why I am not an NPR radio announcer as I not only pronounce all the words exactly as the dictionary explains those pronunciations. I have that proverbial baritone radio announcer’s voice with the same story of my vocal chords changing that the famed late great announcer Don La Fontaine tells happened at age 12. Why did the announcer and the guest state that all places have an accent when the whole point of the story is to correct those “wrongful vowel sounds” to properly identify the words they way they should be pronounced? It’s also funny that many people who come here to Portland and we hear them say words that are totally unidentifiable and then tell us that they know what they’re saying? Even the Brits on the BBC say Obommer, Chiner, Alabammer and Ideer for missing the proper pronunciations of those words. We add no vowel or consonant sounds or misplaced accents where those sounds do not belong in Portland . I have even heard some slight accent from Californian’s which you pointed out have none. It’s Oregon [and the Northwest in general] that you should have mentioned as the proper example.

    Not to harshly insult them for their unrealized miscommunications but the reason why we are called the voice-capitol in Portland Oregon is a good cause for others to take note. If you’d like to hear this proper example, feel free to call: 503 753 3811. – Mark Seibold, retired IT Tech, Artist-Astronomy Educator, Portland Oregon

  • Bill

    Johnny Carson was not from Indiana. Wish we could claim him. He was from Nebraska. Red Skelton was from Vincennes and David Letterman from Indianapolis.

  • Bill

    I have to agree with Michigander’s comment. As I heard her say passenger in an accent that made me think of New York City or maybe New Jersey and link it to Detroit, I thought what?? I’ve to Metro airport (DTW) many times, never heard that accent. I’ve lived in up here in southeast Michigan for 25 years now, can’t remember hearing that accent from anyone native to Michgan.

    I ask for a second opinion. Bring someone else on the show for the same subject which I find intriguing.

    When I drive down home to Evansville in the spring and haven’t been there since last fall, I notice no difference between Ann Arbor and Indianapolis (natives to Michigan and northern and central Indiana probably can). Then when I get to Terre Haute and Vincennes, I think people sound like Evansville. When I get to Evansville, I think gee these people sound like Kentucky. When I cross the river to Henderson, I think people there sound like Tennessee.

    Then the next few times down there in the summer, I don’t have the same observation. I think the first time down there every year that maybe accents sound farther south because I haven’t heard them for several months.

    • Claire Bowern

      The basis of my example that bag is pronounced a bit like “biag” comes from work (by William Labov of U Penn) that shows that Detroit shares many accentual features with inland Northern cities such as Buffalo and Rochester. The amount of time I’ve spent in Detroit and Southern Michigan is pretty small. If commenters feel this is wrong, please do contribute to the survey! That will go a long way towards establishing and documenting what people really do say.

  • Sarah

    Here’s a fun one! I’m from CT, and didn’t think that I had an accent at all until coming to Chicago and finding myself dropping all of my consonants: For me, Armitage is Armidage, Butter is Budder, Wa-der, Midden (you get the idea). This was something I never ever noticed until coming here.

  • Jared

    I’m from Vermont, which has a very rare accent, and it’s difficult to find people who still have a “true” Vermont accent. What a fun study!

    • Jared

      I should also add that my father (faah-ther) is from Oklahoma, and my mom was born in Florida but grew up (until age 6) on Long Island and then lived in Vermont from then on. She has no real accent, and my dad has lost his Oklahoma accent, so therefore my sister and I always thought (thawt) that we did not have accents — but then I lived in Colorado for 5 years and Minnesota for 3 years — and the Minnesotans, especially, got a kick out of my accent!! (And I, in turn, got a kick out of theirs!)

  • LvKBSXBoise

    I would like to know which dialect regional or otherwise uses the pronunciation “worsh” for the word wash. Last I checked the dictionary, the word wash didn’t have an “r” in the spelling or proper pronunciation. Can anyone enlighten me? This linquistics has been interesting.

    • Claire Bowern

      That’s usually associated with the are around Pittsburgh.

    • Jared

      My Grandmother, born in Oklahoma and she lived there her whole life, pronounced wash as “worsh” as do a few people that I know from Iowa.

    • Ferial

      I have a friend from Iowa who says “worsh.”

  • John Newberry

    There are certain words that I say differently than most people that were not in this survey; half, tomato, trespass as example

  • Ferial

    As a native New Englander (brought up in a house with relatives who were born in the nineteenth century) I’ve got one heck of an accent. And I was astonished when I visited Charleston (SC) to hear how similar my accent was to theirs. The vowels may be different, but the consonants are the same. They pronounce Charles “chaws” and so do I.

  • Paca

    So good to hear from Dawn! I know a Dawn whom I pronounce as Dawn, rhymes with Lawn, Spawn, Fawn, Pawn, Yawn. My friends who pronounce Dawn as Don think it is a NY accent. I disagree, I think its simple proper phonetics. I was raised to prounounce a W if it is there and if it makes me sound like i am from Long Island, so be it. For those who call the Dawns of the world Don, do you also say Lon, Spon, Fon, Pon, and Yon? Similarly, why say cot for caught when the word clearly asks for an “au” sound? Consider phonetics please!

    Having said that I am originally from NY as used to say cawfee for coffee but have been told over and over that I no longer have a discernable accent, which is partially by design and from living in various places in New England. To the professor everyone in the US has an accent because she is from Australia! But relative to other (US) Americans, there are many people who do not have detectable accents…and I am proud to be one of them … most of the time.

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