American Word Pronunciation Maps

A look at regional differences in American English.

soda-pope-coke-map

Business Insider has assembled “22 Maps That Show How Americans Speak English Totally Differently From Each Other,” itself based on 120 maps produced by an NC State grad student.

Regional accents are a major part of what makes American English so interesting as a dialect.

Joshua Katz, a Ph. D student in statistics at North Carolina State University, just published a group of awesome visualizations of Professor Bert Voux’s linguistic survey that looked at how Americans pronounce words. (via detsl on /r/Linguistics)

His results were first published on Abstractthe N.C. State research blog.

Having myself moved around a lot, first as an Army brat and later as an Army officer and academic gypsy, I use a lot of the pronunciations interchangeably or now pronounce words differently than I did as a kid in Texas.

I grew up calling sodas “Cokes” (What kind of Coke do you want? Orange.) which is stil commonplace in Texas and much of the Deep South but have long sense switched to calling them “sodas” or, more commonly, “soft drinks.”

I grew up calling caramel “car-ml,” which dominates every part of the country but the South and Eastern Seaboard, but now find the Southern “carra-mel” creeping in occasionally.

I pronounce the first word in “Bowie knife” as “Bo-wie,” like everyone outside of North Texas and Maryland; given that Jim Bowie pronounced his name “Boo-wie,” they’re right and the rest of us are wrong.

I pronounce crayon as “cray-ahn,” even though “cray-awn” is somewhat more common.

I say “loyer,” not “law-yer,” despite the latter pronunciation dominating the places I’ve mostly lived.  Ditto “may-uh-naze” rather than “man-aze.”

Oddly, even though I grew up saying pa-jah-mas, which predominates the Southern and Eastern parts of the country, I now find myself saying pa-JAM-as more often.

More oddly still, I pronounce pecan as “pick-AHN,” when almost everyone else in the country says “pee-KAHN” or “PEE-can.”

Apparently, “roundabout,” which I had always thought a Britishism, is much more common than “traffic circle,” which I’ve always called them.

More oddly, virtually everyone in the country puts “SIR-up” on their pancakes rather than “SEAR-up” like I do.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    It gets more fun as you go international. South Africans call traffic light “robots,” which is cute.

  2. Moosebreath says:

    Some comments:

    1. I would have liked a Philly-ism other than “hoagie”. Pronouncing H20 as “wooder”, or the linguistic marvel that the first syllable of “hammer” is not pronounced the same as the deli meat “ham” (pronounced “hay-um”) never ceases to amaze me, even though I am a native. I guess a map which just had a the Philly area different than the rest of the country would have been dull, though.

    2. the second person plural form of address was clearly lacking some choices, including the Pittsburgh “younse” and the NYC “yiz”.

    3. I liked the drive thru liquor store question, even though I only saw one in my life, on a trip to the Outer Banks. Come to think of it, the North Carolina coast was the area which had a different word for it.

  3. PJ says:

    Coca Cola can’t be very happy with the “coke belt”, coke becoming a generic term for soda is something they really don’t want.

  4. Mikey says:

    There’s a link in the BI story to the full set of maps. I went through most of them, and the greatest regional variations I saw were for pop/soda/Coke/soft drink, and that little bug that rolls into a ball when you touch it, which is a pill bug/roly poly/potato bug/I have no idea what this is (the last being popular in Maine and the Dakotas, where it is apparently too cold for them to survive).

    I grew up in Michigan where they are roly polys.

    We also called the night before Halloween “Devil’s Night,” which I only learned was a Michigan thing when I joined the Air Force. In fact, outside Michigan and New Jersey, it’s just “the night before Halloween.”

    But then they don’t have a Detroit to burn down, do they?

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    America. A country divided by a common language.

  6. john personna says:

    @Mikey:

    Do you know that pill bugs sometimes climb to the top of mountains? One of the crazier bug-moments on a hike was finding pill-bug peak on Catalina Island. Hundreds of them.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    In one of the assignments in the very first linguistics class I ever took we were asked to produce phonetic transcriptions of a list of words. After a number of my transcriptions were marked wrong, I appealed to the professor for a revision on the grounds that I spoke a distinct dialect of English in which the words were, indeed, pronounced the way I had transcribed them. I got the score altered.

    One more thing. Most Americans are under the impression that regional dialects are declining. That’s not true. For example, the Philadelphia dialect (mentioned above) has actually deviated more from Standard American English farther over the last 30 years.

    What;’s happening is that the dialects are changing. Some are becoming less differentiated but many are becoming more so.

  8. john personna says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Whether or not science needs a global language — which, Scott L. Montgomery believes, it does — like it or not, it already has one: English.

  9. Moosebreath says:

    @Mikey:

    “In fact, outside Michigan and New Jersey, it’s just “the night before Halloween.””

    We always called it Mischief Night growing up.

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I loved one of the answers to “What do you call it when rain falls when the sun is shining?”

    Answer parts of LA, AL and MS: “The devil is beating his wife.”

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @john personna:

    it already has one: English.

    Yep. I don’t know why but I was slightly surprised when I learned that air traffic control the world over is conducted in English. Sort of a “DUH!” moment.

  12. Andre Kenji says:

    @john personna:

    It gets more fun as you go international. South Africans call traffic light “robots,” which is cute.

    Portuguese has even more fun. “Bicha” is a offensive slang for homosexuals in Brazil, and it´s “waiting line” in Portugal.

  13. stonetools says:

    @john personna:

    South Africans call traffic light “robots,” which is cute.

    You mean the south efricans. Go to Australia, the Caribbean, India-heck, the UK- and you will have even more fun.

  14. Mikey says:

    @Moosebreath:

    We always called it Mischief Night growing up.

    So, what part of New Jersey are you from?

  15. Mikey says:

    @john personna: I had no idea. Now I have to look those things up and learn about how they propagate.

  16. John Burgess says:

    My idiolect is clearly a blend of where I grew up — Western MA and Detroit — augmented by later living up and down the East Coast. Throw in some British English for artful contrast.

    Most of the terms and pronunciations in the survey are known to me even if I don’t use them.

    The survey was negligent in covering some micro-usages as “cabinet” for what most call “milk shake” or “tonic” as a term of soft drinks. Those are pretty specific to SE MA and RI, I guess.

  17. John Burgess says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Actually, English is required only for international flights. Purely domestic air traffic dialogue can be in the native language of wherever.

  18. Moosebreath says:

    @Mikey:

    “So, what part of New Jersey are you from?”

    The part on the west shore of the Delaware River (Northeast Philly, to be exact).

  19. Franklin says:

    I pronounce crayon as “cray-ahn,” even though “cray-awn” is somewhat more common.

    I’m pretty sure I hear some people make it one syllable: “cran”.

  20. Mikey says:

    @Moosebreath: LOL…but indeed, per the survey, 76.4% of Philadelphians refer to that night as “Mischief Night.” Looks like pretty much everyone in Delaware does as well.

    79.4% of residents of my hometown of Troy, MI refer to it as “Devil’s Night.”

  21. Franklin says:

    @Mikey: I’m from Michigan. I didn’t realize that Devil’s Night was specific only to us. You learn something new every day.

    I also hadn’t heard of roly poly/potato bug ever referred to as a pill bug.

  22. Rob in CT says:

    Me, I live in Conneddicut. 😉

  23. Rob in CT says:

    Oh, and here in Conneddicut, it’s called Mischief Night too.

  24. rudderpedals says:

    How common are New Year’s Eve celebrations with firearms elsewhere? Growing up north it was unheard of but in Florida it’s de rigeur.

  25. Tillman says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Heard that one here in NC from my dad. As a child I would confuse the saying, turning it into “the devil’s wife is beating him.”

  26. Really weird thing I just realized about myself is that I pronounce the word Pecan differently when I’m talking about the loose nuts (pee-KAHN) and when I’m talking about the flavor (PEE-can pie)

  27. stonetools says:

    In Bawlamer (the big city on the East Coast between Philly and DC), H2O is also “wooder” and people “wersh” with it. They walk on “pa’ments” and call homicide detectives “murder police.” Sadly, “hon” as a term of endearment (“Howyadoin’, hon”) seems to be going away.
    Only there a police baton is called an “espantoon”

  28. Adrei Vfeked says:

    I must admit the “Bowie” map did make me chuckle, specifically seeing the cluster in Maryland that pronounces it correctly. The reason for that is that there is a large suburb of Washington, DC called “Bowie” which is pronounced “Boo-ee”.

    Oddly enough, I learned to pronounce it “Boo-ee” long before I ever set foot in either Texas or Maryland. Just lucky I guess.

  29. Dave D says:

    I was shocked that Rhode Island calls them Bubblers as well. Growing up I thought that was only a Wisconsin thing.

  30. JKB says:

    Interesting how the map above tracks well, with bleed over and hotspots, this one on predominate state ancestry

  31. Dave Schuler says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Something else that many people aren’t aware of: medical education is conducted in English in much of the world including places that were never part of the Commonwealth. That’s why, for example, so many of the English language Iraqi bloggers were dentists or physicians. They had to have some conversance with English for medical or dental school.

  32. JKB says:

    I think I’m going to switch to the term I read in the British papers, “fizzy drinks”

    Think of how amusing it would be if the reports were that Bloomberg wanted to ban large fizzy drinks.

  33. Ben says:

    @Dave D:

    I was shocked that Rhode Island calls them Bubblers as well. Growing up I thought that was only a Wisconsin thing.

    It’s not just Rhode Island. I grew up in central MA and we called them bubblers as well.

  34. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Ben: I grew up in Plymouth, MA, and it was the same there.

  35. DC Loser says:

    Interesting that the “soda” locations contain most of the old big brewery towns (STL, Milwaukee, Northeast).

  36. Grewgills says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    Loved that one too. Here in HI we call it ghost rain. Wife’s HS friends called it fairies getting married