Soda vs. pop is a long-standing vernacular battle among the different regions of America.
Minnesota is in the pop camp.
But that’s not the only difference between us Minnesotans and the rest of the country in how we talk. We tend to pronounce the word “crayon” with a single syllable, “kran,” while most of the country uses two-syllable pronunciations. A garage sale here is a rummage sale in Milwaukee. A drinking fountain here is a water fountain in the South and Northeast — and, mysteriously, a “bubbler” in Green Bay and Boston. And of course, the game the rest of the country calls Duck, Duck, Goose.
Josh Katz, who grew up in southern New Jersey, was drawn to regional differences in language. The oblong sandwiches he called “hoagies” were called “subs” in the northern part of the state.
“I remember being really fascinated by the idea of where that line was, where hoagies became subs, and other words like that in the country,” said Katz, a graphics editor at the New York Times.
He started collecting data on dialect for a statistics project in graduate school and never looked back. Katz developed an online quiz that eventually culled 350,000 responses from Americans about the words they use.
Now, he presents that data in “Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk,” a colorful new coffee-table book that uses maps of the United States to reveal the unique regionalisms in our language.
We spoke to Katz about why you can’t lump Minnesota and Wisconsin together linguistically, whether accents are on their way out and why people get so worked up about the words they use.
Q: Why do you think how we speak gets such a strong reaction from people?
A: Ultimately, it’s because language — and the way people talk — gets really wrapped up with their identities. People really find a lot of meaning in it. People’s sense of themselves and where they’re from is really tied up with how they talk. I think the quiz and the book spoke to that. Also, I think there’s an element of surprise to it.
Q: What were some of the surprises?
A: There were a lot of things I said, or words I used, that I always assumed were national or universal terms spoken everywhere in the country. And then I find out it’s not true at all. What I call scallions in most of the country are green onions. Or what I would call a tractor-trailer is, in most of the country, a semi or an eighteen-wheeler. Oftentimes people don’t even realize the words they’re using might identify where they’re from.
Q: What did your data show about the Upper Midwest?
A: It’s funny, because Minnesota and Wisconsin get lumped together a lot, but they have some very different dialect features. Wisconsin has their rummage sales and bubblers, and Minneapolis very much doesn’t. In some words, Minneapolis and that part of Minnesota is more like a northeastern city — but the accent very much is not.
You definitely see a contrast in the Upper Midwest and the rest of the country between people who live in cities and people who live in rural areas. There’s a Minneapolis way of talking and then there’s a northern and western Minnesota way of talking that’s sort of closer to North Dakota.
With all of these things, you always get a mix of different features and places. It’s rare that you’ll find one thing that everyone will say in one part of the country.
Q: Is there anything Minnesotans say differently from everyone else?
A: This is one I learned when my sister moved to Minnesota. When we grew up, we played Duck, Duck, Goose. In Minnesota, they play Duck, Duck, Gray Duck.
Q: Do people constantly try to talk to you about how they say things?
A: One of the fun things about this process is that people will suggest terms and phrases to me that they’ve noticed that might not be in the book. It’s an endless source of new words and phrases. The book is like 200 pages, but I could turn around and write another one just as easily. It’s definitely not a comprehensive guide.
Q: Has technology changed how we talk at all?
A: You’ll often hear people say that technology and media are going to lead to this homogenization of American English, and dialect variation is disappearing, and I think the book shows that that’s really not true. Dialect variations and different kinds of regional Englishes have persisted over decades, and they’re going to exist for decades to come.
Q: Until everyone just stops speaking altogether and only communicates in emojis?
A: Yeah, well, there’s that.