Wow, Speaking American

Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk, A Visual Guide by Josh Katz. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 9780544703391.

speakingamericanSarah: This guy who was in charge of making infographics for the New York Times, with the help of a massive four-volume reference work on American regional English, made online  tools to show what people call things in different parts of the US, and other regional variations in language. It was one of the most popular interactive features the New York Times ever published.
Gene: So these images were all on its website?
Sarah: Yeah. They gathered information, then used those to make graphics that look like heat-maps that show ways people say things where. The more common the word or phrase, the darker the color.
Gene: You’re showing me the “green onions” vs. “scallions” map. Washington is very dark on “green onions.”
Sarah: Right, we have really strong feelings about green onions.
Gene: But Seattle is not.
Sarah: King County is a little iffy on that.
Gene: “Scallions” is mostly in the Northeast and in Florida, where people from the Northeast have moved.
“Please be more specific about this pile of shredded vegetables.” Where they don’t call coleslaw “slaw” versus where they do. (laughs). Where do they? In the South.
Sarah: This is definitely going to be one of the interactive parts of my booktalks.
Gene: These are all two color images of the US, with lighter or darker shades.
Sarah: Check out Hawaii. They really don’t call it “slaw” at all.
Gene: Is that what that means?
Sarah: Extremely dark orange means a higher percentage.
Gene: Then “takeout“ vs “carry-out.” “Takeout” is everywhere but kind of the Midwest? What is it in the UK?
Sarah: “Carry-out” I think?
Gene: I think it’s “carry-out” too. No, I feel like that’s wrong, it’s something else. (Sarah, later: he’s right: it’s takeaway.)
Sarah: I feel like if you added all of the English-speaking nations this could be a huge multi-axis map.
“How many syllables are there in ‘caramel?'”
Gene: Two.
Sarah: Two, yeah, right!
Gene: Oh, man, look at all these places where it’s three. It’s all of the Northeast and what, the Southeast, California, Texas?!? Oh, and everywhere in Hawaii.
Sarah: Though it’s less than Louisiana.
Gene: “Can you use ‘frosting’ and ‘icing’ interchangeably?” No way, dude!
Sarah: So we’re really firmly in the “no” category.
Gene: Do you agree with all of the information for Washington?
Sarah: I gave this as a family Christmas present and it started a lot of discussions. My dad grew up in one part of Washington, my mom in another, and they have some fairly significant differences in how they speak.
Gene:  “The great debate between ‘sprinkles’ and ‘jimmies?’”
Sarah: You can see this is not the whole US, this is just the Northeast. It’s strongly regional.
Gene: In Maine, they call cupcake sprinkles “jimmies”???
Sarah: Yeah, you’ve never heard people say that? In New York and New Jersey, too.

(At this point, it becomes clear that neither Sarah nor Gene is very good at identifying states by their shapes, and an atlas is consulted.)

Gene: Oh, then there’s how to pretend you’re from a region!
Sarah: The section on the Northwest is really good. I was saying, “That’s true!” and “That doesn’t sound true!” It even clarifies what words and expressions are really common in Portland but not Seattle.
Gene: In Washington you go to the “ocean,” in Oregon you go to the “coast.”
Sarah: Well, and really even if you’re from Washington, you go to the Oregon coast.
Gene: That’s really funny. And true. I would never go to the coast here in Washington. Oh my god.
Sarah: “Puh-jam-uhz” vs “Puh-jah-muhs,” just like the song.
There’s a crazily granular map of “offen” vs “often,” then it’s shown by birth year.
I sort of feel like it’s better to read this with a friend, so they can ask you how you say something before the map makes you second-guess yourself.

(At this point, Gene and Sarah start pronouncing words in an exaggerated comedic fashion)

Sarah: There’s a really great chart: “What do you call a drive-through liquor store?”
Gene: We don’t have a word for that because that’s insane.
Sarah: So we’re in the vast majority of the country that says, “We don’t have a word for this.” What is that? What are you talking about?
Gene: “Party barn,” “brew-thru,” “beer barn,” “beverage barn!” Oh, come on! They’re making this up!
Sarah: Isn’t it interesting that we live in one country, yet there are still things that still seem so foreign?
Gene: How to pretend you’re from Louisiana. “Neutral ground,” what is that?
Sarah: They had a chart for it earlier. You know that strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street? That’s neutral ground.
Gene: That’s a parking strip.
Sarah: There’s a fuller explanation on the chart as to why it’s called that.
Gene: “Potato bug.” Do you call it that?
Sarah: No, I call it a “pillbug.”
Gene: That’s weird.
Sarah: And sometimes “sowbug,” but I don’t even see that on the list.
Gene: I grew up saying “sowbug.” I think that might be something about our age. I hear “roly-poly” and that seems really weird to me. I don’t know why it’s a “potato bug.” I never saw one eat potatoes.
Sarah: Right. But look, there’s a streak of “potato bug” in western Washington and Oregon. And Utah.
Gene: Gimme your one-sentence booktalk for this.
Sarah: “How do you say it?”

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