Dialect Survey Maps

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by Win Noren

I came across a very interesting article a few weeks ago regarding visual representations of 122 linguistic differences in the speech of Americans. The maps were developed by Joshua Katz, a Ph.D. student in statistics at North Carolina State University and are a visual representation of what words are used by people across the United States to represent various concepts and how those words are pronounced.

According to an interview of Katz his interest in language dialects led him to create a statistical algorithm that weighed the responses around a particular location which allowed him to create the visually stunning heat maps showing the distribution of the various responses to each question. The summary of Katz’ end-of-the-year statistics project states: “Each observation can be thought of as a realization of a categorical random variable with a particular parameter vector that is a function of location—our goal was to interpolate among these points in order to estimate these parameter vectors at a given location, making use of a combination of kernel density estimation and non-parametric smoothing techniques. This results in a smooth field of parameter estimates over the prediction region. Using these results, a method for mapping aggregate dialect distance is developed.”

What do you call a carbonated beverage? Water fountain? Drinking fountain? Bubbler?Some of these maps are examples that everyone is familiar with (is a carbonated beverage “soda,” “pop,” or “coke”?) but others were new to me. I found looking at the maps to be visually stunning but also it caused me to think about why the people in Rhode Island and Wisconsin use the same word, “bubbler,” for “the thing from which you might drink water in a school” while the rest of the country calls it either a “water fountain” or a “drinking fountain.”

How do you address a group of people?Having lived my entire life in the Midwest (Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas) it was easy to see in my own responses to the questions that those of us who live here truly are a melting pot of the rest of the country as frequently the heat-map of the responses from northeastern Oklahoma were a mixture of the strong preferences in other regions of the country.

It's raining but the sun is shiningThen there were the phrases that most of the country has never heard of. For example, around here (and most of the country apparently) there is no special word for when it is raining and the sun is out. In some of the country this is called a “sun shower” although in a few locales in the south this is called “the devil is beating his wife.” Apparently the rain is her tears.

I could go on and on about the maps and how interesting I found them, but instead I encourage you to head over to the full listing yourself and check them out. You can also look up how your community’s dialect compares to the rest of the country with the Aggregate Dialect Difference maps and see who else in the country talks like you do.

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Posted on September 23, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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