Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Dialect Survey

In my daily browsing of New York blogs, I came across one of those sorts of items they throw in there when there isn't enough local gossip: a map of American dialects. Former Harvard, now UW Milwaukee linguist Bert Vaux (check his creepy photo -- the eyes blink) conducted a 122 point survey of American dialects. The questions were multiple choice, like this:

37. huge, humor, humongous, human...
a. I pronounce the h (94.65%)
b. I don't pronounce the h (2.73%)
c. I can pronounce the h or not (2.16%)
d. other (0.47%)
(10899 respondents)

So who doesn't pronounce the H? It's concentrated around the East Coast, mostly New York, Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc. As someone whose name starts with H, I'm a little uncomfortable with this. Someone I work with was telling me a story a few weeks ago about someone named Uwe. Thinking he was using the German name I've only read and never heard pronounced, I asked him if it was spelled U-W-E. No, he said, surprised. H-U-E-Y. Aha! The unpronounced H.

Some of the survey's words are bizarre, as in question 59. What do you call the game wherein the participants see who can throw a knife closest to the other person (or alternately, get a jackknife to stick into the ground or a piece of wood)? For most of America, it's option: t. I have never heard of this "game" and have no idea what it's called (51.32%), but for an assortment of Americans, it might be:

a. mumblety-peg (8.07%)
b. mumbledy-peg (8.69%)
c. mumbly peg (10.84%)
d. mumbly pegs (0.47%)
e. mumblely peg (with 2 l's) (1.81%)
f. mumble peg (0.23%)
g. mummety-peg (0.02%)
h. mumble-the-peg (0.00%)
i. fumbledy peg (0.00%)
j. numblety peg (0.22%)
k. peggy (0.02%)
l. baseball jackknife (0.16%)
m. stick-knife (1.01%)
n. stick-frog (0.16%)
o. stretch (1.14%)
p. chicken (2.94%)
q. knifey (0.11%)
r. splits (0.49%)
s. Russian roulette (1.90%)

Wow. Other questions are more predictable -- creek or crick?, and still others are points of contention -- how many syllables in 'realtor'?.

But my favorite has to be 77: What do you call the activity of driving around in circles in a car? Now most of America calls this a. doing donuts (80.71%). When I read this question, I figured that would be the popular response. But where I'm from we called it -- and I was stunned to see this make the survey -- c. whipping shitties (1.43%). Look at the map: the biggest cluster of shitty whippers is around the Twin Cities, with smaller clusters in Duluth and what looks like the major cities in Wisconsin and the Chicago area. The few outposts in places like Texas, Florida, New York, Arizona? Has to be displaced Minnesotans.

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