I couldn’t believe she said it—an elderly woman in La Crosse, Wisconsin, short and frail as she exited the boat dock, holding my hand to steady herself. We’d just finished a backwaters cruise on the wildlife-packed Mississippi River, where I work in the summertime as an ecotour naturalist, teaching all ages, all comers from around the world. A great gig. I meet thousands of people, including senior ladies who tap my arms and elbows with tightly folded dollar bills—tips for a job well done. Or so I’ve thought.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” Her voice was nasally and sharp, yet not what I’d call unfriendly. She wore a sweater buttoned up tight.
“No, ma’am,” I said. I thought she was about to dote on me, as many have doted after a cruise. The job can feel like a Chippendales show, though I use turtle shells for props, or bird wings and mammal pelts as I roam around the boat.
“No ma’am,” I repeated. “I’m a Hoosier. I grew up south of here, in Indiana.”
“Well, young man, it shows.” Her voice became agitated, fiery. “You need to learn how to say Wisconsin. It’s Wisconsin, not W-e-s-consin. Wis! Wis! Got that? Get it right or go home.”
I kept holding her hand, stunned.
In moments we reached the sidewalk where she joined a half-dozen friends, all teetering in their sweaters, chatting, enjoying themselves. Me, I’d been tongue-lashed, scolded, cast out. Who knew that I’d spoken with an accent, let alone a slow one? I’ve been asking myself ever since, Do I really have a drawl?
According to Joshua Katz, it’s possible. Or at least I talk funny—funny to someone from Wisconsin, where I’ve lived for only three years.
Katz is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Statistics at North Carolina State University—a numbers guy who researches “spatial statistics, epidemiological modeling, data visualization and information design.” That’s heady stuff, I know, incomprehensible at first glance, but then Katz knows how to reach lay people. He knows we love maps.
Long story short, about the time I met that old lady in June or July of this year, I came across Katz’s project, “Beyond ‘Soda, Pop, or Coke’: Regional Dialect Variation in the Continental U.S.” And how could I not? It was all over the Internet, from the Business Insider and Wall Street Journal to the Atlantic and Huffington Post, the latter saying, “What do you call a set of 122 maps depicting the variety of word choice, pronunciation and slang across the U.S.? Super viral.”
Viral, indeed. The Business Insider recorded almost 17 million page visits within 24 hours of posting Katz’s maps. Seventeen million! Yep, funny talk is fascinating, even if none of us thinks we do it.
Begs the question, Why? Why are we so fascinated with Katz’s project? Is it the beauty of his colorful maps, the pastel washes and bold markings for regional accents and word choices? Or the interactive technology, how a viewer can click from town to town to explore America in a new way? Then again, each click leads to something familiar, confirming our long-held instincts: human beings are strange, and Katz is giving us proof.
Yet maybe our reaction means something else, something fundamental to human nature: we want to know who our people are, as well as who they aren’t. After all, we’re a tribal species. We survive by knowing kin.
In any case, what kind of science is this, beneath the numbers, beneath the maps? In Katz’s words, “[d]ialect encompasses both phonological differences (pronunciation) and lexical differences (vocabulary). The study of how dialect varies geographically is an important component of linguistic research.”
He’s studying our greatest gift—language, warts and all.
It’s important, too, to point out that Katz’s work is based on the Harvard Dialect Survey, completed in 2003 by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. Here a few examples of the questions Vaux and Golder asked English-speaking people across the United States:
- How do you say “aunt”? See the results expressed as percentages.
- How do you pronounce “pecan”? Results.
- What word(s) do you use to address a group of two or more people? Results.
- What do you call the little gray creature (that looks like an insect but is actually a crustacean) that rolls up into a ball when you touch it? Results.
- What nicknames do/did you use for your maternal grandmother? Results.
- What do you call the miniature lobster that one finds in lakes and streams? Results.
Here’s the breakdown by state. For instance, look at the difference between Wisconsin and Indiana, a short separation, geographically speaking, but worlds apart in linguistics. That old woman was right: I’m not from around here. It shows.
And for the record, I call it a “crawdad.” I’m a Hoosier. Damn straight.
Your turn: Do you talk funny? Do your relatives or friends? Check out Katz’s project and share what piques your interest. What’s your favorite map? Where are your people?
Photo: The Mississippi River near downtown La Crosse. JEFF DARREN MUSE