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Dialect maps of the United States

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  June 10, 2013 02:52 PM

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We know that dialects vary across the United States but unless you're paying close attention it's hard to remember who says exactly what, where. Take the sweet sauce known as "caramel," for instance. You've probably heard it pronounced with three syllables ("carra-mel") and with two syllables ("car-ml") but where geographically does one pronunciation begin and the other end? Statistician Joshua Katz of North Carolina State University has found a remarkably clear way to answer that and other dialect questions. Using data collected by University of Cambridge (and former Harvard University) linguist Bert Vaux, Katz has created 122 color-coded maps of the United States which reveal regional variations in speech. As the first map below shows, people say "carra-mel" in the southeast, northeast, and parts of Texas, while the rest of the country uses the more thickly affectionate pronunciation, "car-ml". Other maps depict regional variations in the use of dinner/supper, names for sugary carbonated beverages, and the terms people use to describe the end of a loaf of bread.

One of the real thrills of Katz's project is finding your own dialect preferences coded on the maps. In this mobile age it's easy to think of yourself as free from the thick attachments of regional culture, but then you see that in the northeast (but just about nowhere else) people use "sneakers" as the "general term for the rubber-soled shoes worn in gym class" and you think: huh, so do I.

You can browse all of Katz's maps here.

Map caramel1.jpg

Map Beverage1.jpg

Map supper1.jpg

H/T Business Insider.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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