Verbal Energy

Accents that put us all over the map

That wildly popular online New York Times dialect quiz illustrates, among other things, how rooted our word choices are in the environment we live in.

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Who knew? The most popular page on The New York Times website last year was an online dialect quiz. Now 2013 was a year that was no slouch for big news, including civil war in Syria, unrest in Egypt, a papal transition, Nelson Mandela's death, the "Obamacare" website debacle, and, closer to home, the Boston Marathon bombings.

But this quiz ("How Y'all, Youse and You Guys Talk"), which purported to place one, on the basis of answers to 25 questions, on a map of the United States, got more attention last year than anything else on the Times website. And many who have taken the quiz have found it almost eerily insightful.

The quiz apparently snagged a full-time job at the Times for Josh Katz, the onetime intern who developed the search algorithm behind the map. And Bert Vaux, the Cambridge University linguist on whose work the quiz was based, has seen an uptick in traffic on his website, "The Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes."

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I caught up with Mr. Vaux – who was raised in Chicago and Houston, by the way, and so forget about whatever idea you have of an "Oxbridge" accent – via "Here & Now," on our local public radio station, WBUR.

When I took the quiz, I turned up "Boston." This sort of makes sense – I've lived here longer than anyplace else – but sort of doesn't: I arrived here as a young adult.

I think it was the "rotary" that did it. The quiz asks, "What do you call a traffic situation in which several roads meet in a circle?" In New England, that's a "rotary," and so that's what I answered. Other terms – roundabout, traffic circle, or traffic circus – are used in other parts of the country. Connoisseurs, though, point out that they are not interchangeable. Were I giving directions here, I would say "rotary" – not least because that's what the road signs say.

Which is my quibble with this fascinating quiz. It gets at some pronunciation issues: Do you pronounce the middle syllable of pajamas with a broad "a" ("father") or a flat one ("jam")? Do you pronounce cot and caught the same, or differently?

But the quiz turns largely on vocabulary, on word choices. And those are often tied up very concretely with the built environment and even the legal system within which we function.

For example: "What do you call a big road on which you drive relatively fast?" I went for "highway" as the broadest term on the list of options, which includes "freeway," "turnpike," "through-way," and "parkway." But each of those is a particular cultural/political construct: The freeways of California, the turnpikes of the Northeast with their tollbooths, the parkways with their limits on height and weight, and restriction to "pleasure vehicles only." Visiting Californians who refer to the Mass Pike as "the freeway" sound unclear on the concept.

My other quibble is that the quiz also seems to posit a fair bit of interior monologue as people decide what to say and how to say it. Some of the questions seem to be intended to check for the "intrusive 'r' " – a pattern, sometimes heard in the Northeast, of pronouncing "Russia and China" as "Rusher and China," or even "Rusher and Chiner."

One of my favorite answer options for one of these questions was, "I would avoid saying this form, so as to avoid having to decide whether to pronounce an [r] or not."

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