Myth Busting with Dialect Maps

Maybe you’ve had the curious experience of taking a dialect quiz and your results place your dialect in a region other than where you grew up. I can relate. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, but when I’ve taken these quizzes I’ve been told I’m from places as far flung as Seattle, Washington and St. Louis, Missouri. These results reflect, in part, the limited features of the quizzes, which often focus on vocabulary and a few key pronunciation and grammatical features.


Isogloss of ik/ek and ich/ech (‘I’) in Germany.*

The maps can also reinforce the idea that regional variation is primarily based on lexcial features, or vocabulary. It’s important to keep in mind when looking at these maps or taking the quizzes, that in  addition to the distinct lexical features that make a dialect a ‘dialect’, variation occurs on every level of language. The smallest units are phonemes, or sounds, in spoken languages and parameters in signed languages. The map above representing the isogloss of ik/ich in Germany is one example of phonological variation. Another example is the “de-voicing” of /z/ to /s/ that marks some varieties of Wisconsin English, particularly those spoken in the Milwaukee area. You can hear the devoicing of /z/ to /s/ in the plural form of bears: pronounced [beɪrs] (bayrs) rather than the more common [beɪrz] (bayrz). This feature comes from German and emerged in Wisconsin Englishes as English and German came into contact when large numbers of German-speaking settlers immigrated to that area.

Although dialect maps might reinforce the idea that everyone in a particular region speaks the same, these maps can also be excellent tools for demonstrating the the diversity of of a language, at least when it comes to vocabulary. This contradiction became clear after reading comments on Ben Zimmer’s recent Language Log post, “Dialect Maps Get Surreal ” and from comments on the Reader’s Digest article by Josh Katz, “Say These 9 Words, and We’ll Tell You Where You Grew Up. As Ben explains in his post, dialect heat maps went viral in 2013 after Josh Katz created a map to represent regional variation. Ben’s post focuses on Josh Cagan‘s Twitter spoof, where isoglosses, or dialect boundaries, representing variants for pie, include fruitcrusts, jiminy snackmouth, and puhhhhh. (See the heat map above.) Ben describes that these maps resurfaced recently the Reader’s Digest article, which based on Katz’s (2016) book, Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk

Although the heat maps tend to focus on lexical features, the phonological features, particularly vowels, are usually what grab our attention when we notice ways of speaking that are different from our own. My students from Michigan tell me that they  when travel outside the state, people often ask them if they are from Chicago or Michigan. This question, no doubt, is prompted by their vowels since many people in lower Michigan and Chicago have some similar vowel sounds, which are characteristic of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. Pronunciation variation is also affected by prosodic features such as syllable stress, pause length, and intonation. For example, the rising intonation at the end of sentences and phrases that is called “up talk” and that characterizes some varieties of California English, is one example of a prosodic features. You can hear up talk, and other phonological and prosodic features that characterize some varieties of California English in the SNL parody, “The Californians.”

Morphology, or word structure, also affects the variations that distinguish one dialect from another. Morphological features can be prefixes and suffixes as well as forms of verbs. For instance, in parts of the South, speakers might use an a- prefix with verbs that use the suffix –ing, what linguists call “a-prefixing“: She was a-reading and a-writing. Morphology often is tightly connected to syntax, or word order, and is often identified as ‘grammar’. For example, in different parts of the Midwest people sometimes use verb forms with the verbs need and want that differ from other regions: their car needs washing, their car needs washed, or that their car needs to be washed. In parts of Appalachia speakers indicate the probability of something happening by using what linguists call “double modals” or doubled helping verbs, as in I might ought to go to the store. This use shows the probability of the event happening, rather than what might appear to people who are not familiar with this usage as wishy-washy. The use of double modals can also signal politeness and can be used as a way to soften requests or commands. The meaning behind this use of double modals falls into the level of language called pragmatics: how we use language in different contexts and interactions, which includes ways of organizing conversations to ways of being polite.

Keep in mind that there’s more to dialect maps than meets the eye, which can explain the outcome of a dialect quiz that identifies you as from a place other than where you grew up.


*Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Ik-ich-Isogloss – Uerdinger Lien.svg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, (accessed
July 24, 2017).



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