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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Man Behind The Dialect Quiz

This map from the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes shows the distribution of words used for "the thing from which you might drink water in a school." Red is water fountain (60%), green is drinking fountain (33%), blue is bubbler (3%)  and yellow is other (1%).

This map from the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes shows the distribution of words used for “the thing from which you might drink water in a school.” Red is water fountain (60%), green is drinking fountain (33%), blue is bubbler (3%) and yellow is other (1%).

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.”

Guest

  • Bert Vaux, a linguistics professor at Cambridge University in England. He tweets @BertVaux.

Transcript

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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?

(LAUGHTER)

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.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Alan

    I was born in the South of England, emigrated to Australia, and have lived in California, Detroit, Long Island, and now live in Western Michigan.

    The quiz put me in Portland, Oregon (which I have never even visted), Salt Lake City (where I spent three days more than thirty years ago), and Wisconsin (where I might have spent a total of two days).

    Some of the questions had no answer that fitted my usage.

    The question about the day/evening before Halloween, should have said: “before All Saints’ Day” – the “een” part of “Halloween” is already referring to the evening before “All Hallows’/Saints’ Day.” I have never read or heard any term that refers to the evening before the day before All Saints’ Day.

    • Sam C.

      If you listen/read, they explicitly say in the interview that people do have a term for the night before Halloween – the question wasn’t incorrect, you just don’t have a term for it. So where I grew up, it’s Mischief Night, then Halloween the next night, then All Saints’ Day the next day.

    • Jeanette Ladd Horn

      England, Germany, California and Texas, it said I was from Alabama. I
      think I have driven through Alabama. lol

    • Bert Vaux

      Alan, the question as currently worded is correct. Originally All Saints’ Day was the religious holiday and the naughty activities (lighting fires, egging people’s houses, etc.) took place the night before. As you correctly point out, this night was called All Hallows’ Eve –> Hallowe’en. In some parts of the US and (northern) UK, though, the naughty activities have shifted one day earlier (to the day now called Devil’s Night etc., two days before All Saints’ Day), and Hallowe’en has become a safe semi-holiday where parents take their kids trick-or-treating during daylight hours.

  • MarkVII88

    I just took the NY Times dialect test. It placed me as most likely from Buffalo/Rochester, NY. Not bad since I’m from the Syracuse area, a mere 1.5-2.5 hours away!

  • Bat Malka

    I was born in The Bronx. Moved at 8 1/2 to Oakland County (SE) Michigan, and am now over 50. This test put me in Madison, WI, or two cities in south Florida. Fail.

  • Mike Geller

    I was born in Albany, New York; lived in southwestern Connecticut, and have spent considerable time in south central New York State. I have lived in southern New Jersey (between Atlantic City and Philadelphia) for almost 40 years. I thought the test placed me pretty accurately as being from the Albany area with some similarities to western Connecticut.

  • William Gray

    I took the test today and can’t find the results! Any help would help!

    • Rachel Rohr, Here & Now

      Hi William, It’s possible the New York Times quiz malfunctioned while you were taking it. Maybe try it again? If you’re having trouble with Bert’s quiz, the website says to contact him directly with questions. http://www.mml.cam.ac.uk/dtal/staff/bv230/ I hope that helps! Best, RR/Web Producer

  • Isabel

    OMG!! Right down to the cities in the state that I’ve spent most of my life in!!! Amazing!

  • David

    we call them “bubblers” here in Australia also !

  • buzz

    I answered all of the questions truthfully and the test hit the Bulls-eye.
    The Irony is that the least similar cities are where my favorite singer hails from and his voice has a primal hypnotic effect on me.

  • Peter

    The test placed me in Yonkers, NY and Patterson NJ – my grandfather (mother’s side) worked in Patterson most of his life and my grandmother (father’ side) lived in Yonkers for most of her life.

  • Alex

    The test had me in Brownsville or Houston which I consider pretty darn accurate. My mother is from Brownsville, TX and I live in San Antonio, Tx. Very impressed it could get Brownsville as it is such a small city.

  • Chris

    Pretty easy to pinpoint me since I do use the term “devil strip”. On water fountains, I am in maintenance and the parts break-down for some units refers to the piece the water comes out of as the bubbler.

    • Robin Streb

      I use “devil strip” too, but that’s because my parents are from the Akron/Canton area… but I’ve spent my whole life in Massachusetts.

  • Edwin Powell

    I totally stumped the test. It pinpointed me as being from either New York, Yonkers, or Baltimore, but I was born in South Carolina and I’ve spent almost my entire life in the central part of North Carolina!!! To be fair, I grew up with a lot of kids from Kingston, NY, who had moved to the Raleigh area with their families, courtesy of IBM.

  • Barbara Wilson

    How one pronounces “almond” is a regionalism peculiar to the central valley of California, especially in the Almond growing area of Sacramento County, Citrus Heights for example. No ‘L’, it’s “am-und”.

    • Aaron Dinkin

      No, not pronouncing the L in “almond” isn’t a regionalism peculiar to the Central Valley; it’s quite widespread. I can’t tell if you’re saying anything about the vowel in the first syllable, though.

      • Barbara Wilson

        “am” as in “I am going to the store.” I have never heard the l-less almond except in the almond growing area of California.

        • Aaron Dinkin

          The “am” pronunciation is pretty unusual, I think; in most regions, if the L isn’t pronounced, the vowel is “ah” as in “father” (or maybe “aw” as in “law”).

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    I’m afraid the NYT test didn’t do well for me. I lived in So. Cal until I gradated college, then moved to Vermont. Been here for over 30 years. I answered the questions as a west coaster in those instances where I may have changed the word I use based on spending more than half my life (so far – Vermont joke) in Vermont. Both of my parents grew up in So. Cal. The test said I was from Madison, Rockford or Grand Rapids.

    I’ve never been to Grand Rapids, passed through Rockford 3 times and drove through Madison once (to see the outside of the state house as I’d heard it is quite nice, and it was) last year – daughter started college in Wisconsin.

    It said my wife was likely from Buffalo. She was born in Vermont and other than her years at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire (1/2 mile from the Vermont border) has never lived anywhere else.

    And why was there no answer of “Interstate” for the “What do you call a big road on which you drive relatively fast?” question? Freeway absolutely in California but they are Interstates up here – unless they are toll roads.

  • Barbara Wilson

    ‘Round here, only stuck-up tourists would say “ahh-mun”. My mother, who worked in the packing sheds at the Van Maren almond orchards,in Citrus Heights, in the 20′s said that there was no ‘l’ because the harvesters (known as ‘almond knockers’) had “knocked the L out of them”. There is your California history lesson for the day.

  • Christine

    This is really interesting! Thank you for sharing the article/quiz :)

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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