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Home » Cartography, Linguistic Geography, North America

North American English Dialects: Bad Map – Or Fantastic Map?

Submitted by on March 21, 2013 – 1:49 am 13 Comments |  
North American English Dialects MapAn internet search of “bad map” returns, among many other examples, Rick Aschmann’s map of North American English Dialects, reproduced here. Critics complain that the map is so busy and complicated as to be almost unreadable. But what the map lacks in grace and style, it makes up for in detail. On Aschmann’s own website, the map is large and interactive: if one clicks on the green dots representing selected cities, one is taken to videos giving pronunciation samples. The website also contains a great deal of textual information, and is updated regularly, with the most recent addition dated March 13, 2012. For those interested in dialectology, the map and website are veritable treasure troves. Inset maps of local areas, such as New Orleans with its three dialect zones, are particularly interesting—although I do wonder if the New York metropolitan area could have been more finely divided. Another intriguing inset map shows a limited dialect zone in far eastern North Carolina, called here “Down East & Outer Banks.” Having spent time on Okracoke Island, I can attest that the local dialect is highly distinctive.

Aschmann obviously spends a great deal of time on this project, although he describes it a mere diversion.  As he puts it, “I am a professional linguist and a Christian missionary, working in indigenous Amerindian languages. My work has nothing to do with English, so that is why this project is just a hobby.” I would object to the word “just” in the preceding sentence, as Aschmann’s work constitutes a real contribution to knowledge, in my view.

San Francisco Bay Area dialects mapMapping such intricate patterns is obviously a challenge, in part because speech patterns at this level of detail can change relatively quickly. Another problem concerns the limited number of data points, which may result in more precise mapping than is actually warranted. Such quibbles come to mind when I examine the inset map showing dialect areas in California’s Bay Area. According to the map, the region is divided on the basis of the so-called cot-caught merger (also reflected in words such as “Don” and “dawn”). Here we are informed that people in the core Bay Area (white on the map) makes a distinction between these vowels, unlike those in the more peripheral areas. Such a pattern does not match my personal experience. I grew up in Walnut Creek, which is supposedly situated on this dialect border, but in my dialect, almost of the paired word in the table below are pronounced identically (I do differentiate “”cock” from “caulk” and “box” from “balks,” but only because I pronounce the “l” in the latter two). The map also places Palo Alto in the “cot≠caught” area, but my 14-year-old daughter looked at me with disbelief when I mentioned that some people pronounce these words differently. So did three of her friends who happened to be visiting at the time, all of whom grew up in Palo Alto. Her fourth friend, however, had a different take: “Oh, my parents argue about that all the time, because my dad is from New Jersey…”

Don=Dawn mapPersonal reflection and anecdote, however, are poor methods for determining such differences, as people are often unaware of how they actually pronounce specific sounds. Instead, careful investigation is required. We therefore contacted Stanford linguist Penelope Eckert, who has conducted detailed research on the topic, as is evident on her website. She reports that the cot/caught merger is essentially complete among younger speakers throughout the region. To the extent that Aschmann’s inset map of the Bay Area is accurate, it is so only in regard to the region’s oldest speakers.

Research also indicates that parents’ vowel distinctions may not even be apparent to their own children. Children, in general, pick up their pronunciation patterns from peers, not mothers and fathers. As noted in a recent essay:

 The Smiths, natives of Philadelphia, have settled in California and are raising twins Dawn and Don. When Mom or Dad calls either child by name, both kids answer. Even though the parents are pronouncing “Dawn” and “Don” distinctly, the children can’t seem to hear any difference. Why not?

Interestingly, this vowel merger causes anxiety among some people, as they worry that they are speaking incorrectly when they pronounce “Dawn” and “Don” in the same manner. Evidently, the distinction between dialectal differences and correct or incorrect pronunciation is not always clear.



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  • Very instructive indeed, um patient and read all the way to the end to hear the age diffs, prob a bridge too far to map for the lack of data (UN has some and tech exists to play that as overlays or animations in GIS, which @ the risk of sounding like a broken record, coyld make said map both legible and pretty…)

  • Matt Gordon

    In the spirit of full disclosure: I wrote the essay you linked to, and the story of the twins Don and Dawn is grounded in truth, but the facts were changed to fit the context of that essay. I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska and went to high school with so-named twins. My generation – I’m in my mid-40s – has merged these vowels and so pronounce ‘Don’ & ‘Dawn’ the same. My parents’ generation has the distinction.

    The observation that children may not notice phonological distinctions in their parents’ speech is certainly accurate. I grew up completely ignorant of the fact that distinguishing ‘cot’ and ‘caught’ was something some speakers did. Coincidentally, a linguist friend of mine just yesterday came to realize that her parents distinguish ‘pen’ and ‘pin’ which she pronounces identically.

    • Fascinating, thanks for sharing this. I also considered mentioning the confusion between “Ian” and “Ann” in one of the Great Lakes cities that you mentioned. For that one, I would love to hear some recordings.

    • Parents can be cruel indeed.

  • How likely is it that all of the Canadian state constitutes a single dialect area, that (almost) nowhere do residents on either side of the border have more in common with each other than with distant fellow Canadians/Yanks? This is especially the case considering two distinct discontinuities, in the east and west. “The West” leaves off at the Olympic Peninsula and resumes in the Alaskan Panhandle, with “Canada” in between. “Canada” leaves off in Anglophone Quebec and resumes in Anglophone New Brunswick, with “Northwestern New England” in between. Note how the population limit in the BC/Yukon/Alaska border region is mapped as a single phenomenon, with a smooth line that does not heed political boundaries; but then the populated area is divided perfectly at the political border.

    • Here’s a book on the subject of Canadian English:

    • If this sharp border actually were the case, I would expect it would be because of differences in media and school standards. My own observation, however, growing up in Western Washington, was that many of us used a lot of Canadianisms (BC-isms?), because we watched a lot of Canadian TV. In fact, I would say that in the 1970s and 1980s, there were several common accents in Western Washington, at least in the Southern Puget Sound area. Some people sounded quite Canadian, some sounded very mountain state (as in parts of Montana and Wyoming), some sounded rather Californian, and some sounded quite network news standard. The mountain states dialect I am talking about might be “North Central” on Mr. Aschmann’s map, but the rest of this variability seems to be subsumed into “The West.” Of course, I was a very imaginative child and this might all have been in my mind.

    • Speaking as someone from the Atlantic Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, I will say that Canadian English spoken west of Quebec and the Englishes I’ve heard from speakers originating in New England and New York sound roughly equally distant. (When I moved to the Ontarian city of Kingston in 2003, I took a couple of weeks for me to realize that I lived in a place where the people talked the way that they did on CBC.)

  • Merlin

    There is so much immigration to the Bay Area, and so much mobility within it, it’s hard to believe that distinct pronunciation boundaries can be drawn.

    Children do indeed learn pronunciation from their peers (or maybe from TV) rather than from their parents. My aunt from Georgia was very upset that her children, growing up in New Jersey, pronounced “new” as “noo” rather than “nyoo,” but that’s the way it’s spoken in Jersey. (Would be interesting to map that pronunciation divergence…as well as chahcolate/chawcolate, ahrange/ awrange, Ahregon/Awregon.)

    BTW Rick does not know where you live–he just knows were you grew up.

    “Even though the parents are pronouncing ‘Dawn’ and ‘Don’ distinctly, the children can’t seem to hear any difference.” This sort of reverses what I had been led to believe; speakers know the phonemes of their language–the distinct sounds that can have different meanings–but speakers of languages that don’t have that distinction can’t hear the difference. Thus a speaker of English, listening to German being spoken, would not hear a difference between “nacht” and “nackt”…which could be embarrassing. One would think that, given the significant difference in meaning between “Don” and “Dawn,” the twins would register the difference between the two sounds. Or maybe the lesson is not to give those names to two children in a family, particularly to twins.

    The Democratic Underground link is bad. I would put the correct link here but in the past, my posts with URLs in them have vanished into the ether. So I’ll just say: truncate the URL after 105×7907462. It then “works,” and I assume it is the page that was intended.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Merlin! And I’ve fixed the link now, thanks!