The New York Times’ dialect map can’t figure me out

My first semester of college, one of the copy editors for the student newspaper either minored in linguistics or just enjoyed the subject. He could peg where all of us were from–except me.

The New York Timesinteractive dialect map struggled with me too. I’ve taken the test five times, and it managed to give me a map just once.

When it worked, it came up with Overland Park, Kan., St. Louis, and Santa Rosa, Calif., of all places.

St. Louis makes sense. I’ve lived in the St. Louis area roughly half my life, and I’ve lived in St. Louis more consecutive years than anywhere else, but I’ve stubbornly resisted St. Louis’ inability to pronounce the letter ‘o’ correctly. That yellow grain that grows on a cob is called “corn,” not “carn.” Oddly, the NYT didn’t ever ask that question.

Overland Park is a suburb of Kansas City. I was born on Kansas City’s north side. Mom was from Kansas City, Mo., and still I have a lot of family there, so I spent a lot of time in Kansas City growing up. I don’t know if there’s much distinction between how they speak on the Kansas side of the border or the Missouri side because I didn’t venture across the border much. Outside of Kansas City, it seems few people realize there’s a Kansas City Missouri, and that the Missouri side is bigger. What’s the largest city in Missouri? Kansas City, though the St. Louis metropolitan area is larger than the Kansas City metro area.

As for Santa Rosa, it tagged me with that because of the word “crawdad.” A crawdad is a small lobster-like animal that inhabits freshwater creeks. My neighbor growing up got them in late spring, and that’s what he and his kids called them. This was in southern Missouri. I lived in southern Missouri for five years, and central Missouri for about seven, so that’s definitely the Ozarks in me. Look on the map, and you see that word in use in Missouri (but conspicuously absent in the two cities) and in the Pacific northwest, and not much else.

Missouri is a tricky place. Kansas Citians and St. Louisans talk very differently from each other and from the rest of the state. I’ve heard it said that St. Louis wants to be an eastern city, Kansas City wants to be a western city, and the rest of the state wants to be southern. Having lived in both cities and in rural Missouri, I agree with that conclusion. But I guess all three areas left an impression on me.

Now, here’s the odd thing. When my wife took the quiz, it pegged her with Philadelphia, along with two southern cities. She’s from southern Missouri. My dad was from Doylestown, Penn., about an hour outside of Philadelphia. So she picked up something that I picked up from Dad, but it registered on her but not me. What, I’m not sure of exactly. Dad called the shoes you wear to play sports “sneakers” (I call them “tennis shoes”), and what most people call “playing catch” Dad called “having a catch,” but there were some other subtleties in the way he talked too. I’m sure that bit of Pennsylvania confused the New York Times as well.

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2 thoughts on “The New York Times’ dialect map can’t figure me out

  • December 22, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    Interesting drill. Yonkers, Newark/Paterson and Philadelphia. No real surprises there, I suppose, although I don’t remember seeing the “crawdad” question – I probably would have selected crayfish for an answer if it was available. Is it really only the northeast that calls the shoes you wear in gym sneakers? Because that seems to be the “most distinctive answer” for those three cities.

    • December 22, 2013 at 8:18 pm

      I think it’s more common in the northeast, but Em said her mom says “sneakers,” and she’s from southeastern Missouri. That’s the first time I’ve heard it from someone who wasn’t from the northeast though. I guess it’s kind of like “pop.” We pretty much all understand it but common usage is a regional thing.

      There’s a bank of questions. I took it five times to get one set of results, and the questions varied a little. It never finished the other four times I took the test.

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