Po-tat-o, Po-tah-to

Is it cray-ahn? Cray-awn? Or crown? Do you take out the trash or the garbage? And what on earth is a sunshower?

Cray-ahn? Crown? (credit: By Crayonsman via Wikimedia Commons)

Those were just a few of the questions Joshua Katz, an NC State PhD student tried to answer in a fascinating series of maps illustrating regional American dialects. (See all 122 maps here.) The maps became so popular after BusinessInsider published a story on the project that Katz’s site crashed Wednesday.

But, though BusinessInsider insists the maps show “How Americans Speak English Totally Differently from Each Other,” what might be even more interesting is how much we sound alike.

“The City” (credit: By user:AngMoKio via Wikimedia Commons)

Take for instance, the question “What is ‘the City’?” For anyone who has every lived remotely close to New York City, you know that locals refer to NYC as “the City” (and in my experience, they often mean Manhattan). It’s as though NYC is the only city, and since it’s the biggest thing around that makes sense. What other city would someone near there realistically be talking about?

But, why does Katz’s data suggest a healthy portion of southern Florida also thinks “the City” means NYC and not, say, Miami? Ditto the eastern coast of North Carolina…and Alabama…and southern Texas? Do they just not have large enough cities to replace “the City” nearby? That hardly seems likely.

Whatever you call the phenomenon, it can lead to a rainbow and that’s what really matters, right? (credit: By Wing-Chi Poon via Wikimedia Commons)

And then there’s that curious “sunshower” I mentioned earlier. I’ve honestly never heard the term before in my time in Texas, New York or Washington, DC. The majority of the country is with me on that. “Sunshower” is a term, Katz’s maps say, based in splotches of the Northeast, Minnesota and Florida. It refers to the weather when the sun shines while it rains. In parts of the Deep South, people call that “the devil is beating his wife.” (Any guesses on that one? Word Detective claims this phrase is found in other languages as well.) But the rest of the country is in pretty solid agreement: We simply don’t have a term for this phenomenon. (Except, of course, the after-effect: the rainbow)

The list goes on. There are many major regional differences (coke-soda-pop, anyone?), but we’re actually surprisingly similar in this run-down. The majority of us bury dead people in coffins (not caskets), we stand in line (not on line) and we mess up by accident (not on accident), Katz’s maps say.

None of this means that us transplants with more (ahem) colorful accents will be able to go a week or more without someone staring confusedly at us or pointing out how cute a particular pronunciation is. But, it’s nice to know that in a world where some people pronounce marry, merry, and Mary as completely different words (I’m looking at you, New Jersey), there’s plenty of room for those of us who believe they’re homophones. In fact, the majority of the country just might agree.


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