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Who Says Tomato?

I’ve just wasted a perfectly good morning scrolling through my own pronunciative history. Joshua Katz, a Ph.D. student in statistics at North Carolina State University, has produced a series of visualizations of the Cambridge linguist Bert Vaux’s online survey of English dialects, as applied to the continental United States. There are various pretty patterns of blue, red, united-states-dialect-map-languagegreen, yellow, and the blends in between, and you can check 122 maps showing regional differences in pronunciation, word choice, and syntax according to the questions posed by the survey.

Now, clicking on the maps—and trying to guess, ahead of time, at the four most popular answers to each question—is fun all by itself. I couldn’t guess, for instance, at No. 83, “what do you call an easy course?” but I was all over  No. 36, “how do you pronounce the c in grocery?” But more interesting, for me, was tracing my own evolving dialect. Having grown up in the Midwest and having spent a fair amount of time on the West Coast before settling (with a slight detour to the South) in the Northeast, I had been aware of shifts in my own use of language, without ever really stopping to consider what lay behind those shifts.

For my personal dialect history, I chose the city of my birth, St. Louis; the city where I attended college and lived for a time, Los Angeles; and the city I’ve called home since 2000, Hartford. Some of the results were expected. Although I knew the term for a “sweetened carbonated beverage” was pop in Michigan, where we often vacationed, it was soda for me from the start and remains so. Other terms, though, rang a bell or touched a raw nerve. I grew up with several aunts, all of them pronounced like ant. My aunt on the West Coast, who hosted me often during college breaks, was also ant. My mother-in-law, when I moved East, was horrified. My female relatives were not insects, she pointed out; and in her presence, if I used the word, it was to rhyme with font. Sure enough, more than 93 percent of St. Louisans pronounce ant, compared with 30 percent of Hartfordians, more than half of whom prefer the au pronounced as ah.

Some results brought a jolt of memory. At the question, “What do you call the insect that flies around in the summer and has a rear end that glows in the dark?” I thought, “Firefly, duh.” Then, when I clicked on the regional variations, there it was—lightning bug (preferred by St. Louisans 9-1 over firefly), along with all those memories of chasing lightning bugs through hot July nights.

In jotting down regional responses and considering my own evolution in pronunciation and usage through the years, I came to a rough conclusion about openness and resistance to change. I left St. Louis for the West Coast at 17, and left the West Coast for the Northeast at 26. Where there was a considerable difference between St. Louis and Los Angeles, and Angelenos’ usage mirrored Northeastern usage, I shifted—e.g., from a three-syllable to a two-syllable mayonnaise; from icing to frosting—and, when I transitioned to Connecticut, kept the word or pronunciation I had apparently begun to use in California. Where there was similar usage in St. Louis and Hartford—e.g., highway for the big road on which you drive fast­­—I could recall having traded the term in for a West Coast term (freeway) and then changing back when I moved East.

But most interesting to me is that, where St. Louis and Los Angeles have similar results and usage in Hartford differs, I have tended to stick to my former habits. Examples from the survey include No. 26, syrup, which I still pronounce, like most St. Louisans and Angelenos, as sir-rup, even though a plurality of my neighbors pronounce it as sear-up. Here, they mostly call the rubber-soled shoes worn for athletic activities sneakers, but I’ve clung to my combined California-Missouri roots and say tennis shoes. I still call No. 103 a drinking fountain and not a water fountain. If I’m asked for an example of a pastry, I’m more likely to name No. 87, bear claw, even though the locals go for No. 86, cruller.

A broad conclusion from this entirely personal and unscientific survey might be that we (the royal we) are relatively fluid in our language choices at 17 but fairly fixed by 26. But various outliers tell a quirkier story. My family of origin tended to put on airs, for instance, so that we pronounced pajamas and pecan with ah in the second syllable even though that’s less typical for St. Louis than for Los Angeles or Hartford. I heard my father, a Yale graduate, say New HAven even though others said NEW Haven, so when I arrived in Connecticut I felt more at home.

The visualizations fail to account for differences of age, which the larger Cambridge Online Survey takes into account. But I’m fairly sure that the difference between calling Dibs! and calling Shotgun! for the front seat has emerged over decades as much as regions. And it seems a bit unfair to ask St. Louisans and Californians about No. 84, “a traffic situation in which several roads meet in a circle,” since these rarely exist in those parts and so the distinction between rotary and traffic circle seems almost silly.

So have at it. Reconstruct your own lexical journey. You may even find, as I did, an answer to a nagging question. One of many temporary homes I excluded from my personal survey was New York, where I spent four years trying in vain to say “Wait on line” rather than “Wait in line.” That’s No. 93, where—joy of joys—it turns out Manhattan and its environs stand out from the rest of the country. Theirs was the provincial pronunciation, not mine. Take that, you folks in (No. 95) the City.

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