The New York Times’ Josh Katz and Naomi Baron of American University discuss the origins of American regional dialects.
Have you ever visited another part of the country and heard the locals use words unfamiliar to you? In some regions, people refer to a carbonated beverage as “soda,” while it’s “pop” in other parts. In Pittsburgh, “yinz” is slang for “you ones” or you people. The New York Times’ Josh Katz created a compendium of these colloquialisms in his book, Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk.
Katz, a statistician and graphics editor at the paper, based his book on a wildly popular interactive dialect quiz he created in 2013. He and Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics and executive director at the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning at the American University in Washington, D.C., discussed why people from various regions speak differently on the [email protected] Show on Sirius XM channel 111.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
[email protected]: What got you thinking about this topic for a book?
Josh Katz: I grew up in South Jersey outside Philadelphia. And you know, in Philadelphia, [a sandwich on a roll is] a hoagie, not a sub. I have friends from New York who called it a sub, and I was interested in this idea of where hoagies became subs and how does that happen? What are the other lines [of linguistic demarcation] like that around the country? I remember being very curious about that from a young age, then eventually coming across the Harvard Dialect Survey, which inspired me to do another round of data collection on similar ideas and ultimately led to this book.
[email protected]: That Harvard survey looked at how or why people say certain things in certain parts of the country?
Katz: Right. That was a survey done about 15 or 20 years ago. I wanted to update and add some questions and do another round of data collection on it. I put this quiz together where you would answer about 25 questions on whether you said soda, pop or Coke, or hoagies versus subs. At the end, you’d get this map that said, “Here’s where in the country people talk the most like you.” I got about 350,000 people to take this quiz, and it was ultimately that data that led to the maps and the book.
[email protected]: The book is a breakdown of different words and maps of where these words are used.
Katz: That’s exactly it. I tried to use language as a way of exploring these ideas of the different regions of the country and some of the history behind the words and why people say the different things that they do.
[email protected]: Naomi, this book touches on something that I’m sure you have looked at quite often, which is why people say certain things in certain regions and why a specific word may be different, like pop and soda.
A lot of differences “deal with food because a lot of these dialects are tied up with people’s identities and the places where they come from.” –Josh Katz
Naomi Baron: There’s a whole range of reasons. I’ll give you a quick list of answers. Why do they say the things they do? That’s because dialects developed in different parts of the United States, as they did in England. People from different parts of England came to different parts [of the country], particularly the East Coast, seeding some of the differences in dialects. … Why do we maintain these [differences]? A whole rash of explanations, the most important of which is we grew up using language that way and, therefore, it’s natural to us.
The second is, we like it because it helps us identify with a particular part of the country or a particular group of people. We maintain certain words, even if other people say, “Boy, you sound weird,” because you want to say, “I say tonic. I do not say soda, I do not say pop, I do not say Coke, I say tonic because my family was from Boston for many generations back. Take that.”
[email protected]: There is this historic element to it, and regionalisms really do hang in as you cross from generation to generation.
Baron: Language is one of those things we really do learn at mother’s or father’s knee. And if there’s no particular reason to change the way you speak, you don’t. However, there are often reasons to change. Teaching in a university setting in Washington, D.C., we have students coming from all over the country. One of the first things they do, including when they come from Pittsburgh, is to say, “Yipes, do I stick out if I say yinz [meaning you ones]?” So, I’m going to try to learn to speak the way they do in Washington, whatever the heck that might mean. You can see people decide consciously to at least temporarily abandon certain ways they grew up speaking. Although, interestingly, when they go home for vacations, they often go back to it because it’s like comfort food. It’s the way that they’re used to speaking.
[email protected]: Josh, being from the Philadelphia area, you probably are well-versed on how the Philadelphia accent can pit people from one city against another city.
Katz: You see that a lot in Northeastern cities, where there are much more distinctive clusters than ones that you see out West. Pittsburgh versus Philadelphia versus New York — each has its own very distinct manner of speaking, which is really interesting.
[email protected]: How does the West compare with the East Coast?
Katz: A lot of dialects and accents have to do with migration. All of the English speaking started on the eastern coast of America and spread west from there, and people took their accents with them. But then, everyone kind of spread out. You will see as you move westward, everything spreads out and kind of blends together somewhat. But it’s still city to city and region to region. You can still find distinctions between the different places.
[email protected]: Naomi, does that mean that Florida may be the true melting pot because you have so many people from so many East Coast cities that are making their way down to Florida to retire?
Baron: I’m going to call it the buffet line as opposed to the melting pot because people often cluster with people who are like them, even when they have retired or moved to another area. There are places in Florida where you think you’re in Brooklyn or Manhattan, or the Bronx because people have not lost their New York accent. Why should they? It served them in good stead all those years, and they keep speaking the same way.
California is a beautiful example where there’s not a melting pot, there’s not a California accent because people have come from so many different places. Just as there’s no Washington, D.C., accent because people have come from so many places. But … when you’re talking about a knife named after Jim Bowie, is it pronounced bouie or bowie? I happen to live near Bowie, Maryland, so I have a real