The North Carolina State graduate student Joshua Katz has compiled a set of maps that tracks regional variations in American English. A comparison of pronunciations and vocabulary for 122 variables, the maps are a treat for lovers of accent and dialect.
Some of the results are unsurprising: everyone knows that Easterners drink “soda”, while Midwesterners prefer “pop” (I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that Southerners refer to all brands and flavors of sweet, fizzy drinks as “Coke”). Others are strange and wonderful. Who knew that food is sold at a “groshery” in the upper Midwest? It’s also fun to place your own speech. I talk like a New Yorker who has spent a lot of time in New England, which is exactly what I am.
But the headline under which Business Insider published the maps is misleading. Far from showing “how Americans speak totally differently from each other”, the maps indicate a remarkable linguistic homogeneity. As far as I can tell, none of the differences that they record poses a serious challenge to understanding speakers from another region. Most regional and even international variations in English are humorous rather than obstacles to communication.
This fundamental consistency is among the strengths of English and the countries that speak it. Although each has a standard version used for official purposes, languages like Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, and even German are really families of dialects so distinct that they are not always mutually intelligible. That has important consequences, namely a much stronger sense of regional and ethnic identity. It may not be coincidental that societies in these language groups have been characterized by counterbalancing tendencies to balkanization and to strong central states that hold the various regions and peoples together by force.
Language isn’t everything. Like English, Spanish is fairly consistent among hundreds of millions of speakers around the world, but hasn’t been associated with stable, limited government. Even so, I share Dos Passos’ view that “USA is the speech of the people.” We’re lucky to have one language after all, and should make sure that it is spoken by all who live here.