Tomorrow, friends and relatives from far-flung corners of the country will gather as they do this time each year—stuff themselves silly, trim Christmas trees, watch football, online shop, etc. And depending on how far-flung those assembled are, there may be in certain homes some clandestine chuckling over a certain guest’s request for “pop” instead of soda, or the other way around, or some other funny way of saying things. Because in this gargantuan expanse we call the United States, we’ve got a wealth of regional variants—some differences subtle, some quite noticeable (though without necessarily the degree of socioeconomic baggage as the UK, I’m convinced).
I recall, for instance, moving to New York City over a decade ago and grappling for the next several years with New Yorkers’ insistence on saying “standing on line” instead of “in line.” As “online” acquired an entirely new meaning, this linguistic oddity took on an even more confusing dimension for outsiders. And having grown up hearing the second person plural as roughly half “you guy”s and half “y’all,”s I’ve been amused by the New York “youse.” As we learn from The Atlantic‘s “Soda/Pop/Coke” above, these differences in wording correspond to regional differences in pronunciation of words like “bag,” “pecan,” and “coupon.”
Informing us that “at least 10 distinct dialects of English are spoken in the United States,” “Soda/Pop/Coke” draws on the 2003 Harvard Dialect Survey, conducted by linguist Bert Vaux. As the film’s interviewers ask callers Vaux’s survey questions, their regional affiliations appear graphically on a map of the continental United States, based on graduate student Joshua Katz’s heat mapping of Vaux’s work. You can see the more than one hundred variants Vaux’s survey measures here, and The Atlantic points us to U Penn’s dense (and specialized) National Map of the Regional Dialects of American English. It’s a complicated and rarefied science, linguistics, but we’re all at least amateur sociologists of language (sometimes bad ones) as we sort and size each other up—or completely mishear each other—based on completely unconscious choices in wording and pronunciation.