American English: You guys say y’all?

About a month ago, twenty-two maps of American English went viral. An article, published by Business Insider, highlighted the work of linguist Joshua Katz, who has been compiling data about American pronunciation and word choice into easy-to-read thematic maps. The article focused on well-known or amusing linguistic differences such as the pronunciation of “pecan pie,” the correct way to order a bubbly fountain drink or the true name of a crawfish. (Or is it crayfish? Crawdad?)

You can view the article here:

The maps are fascinating and certainly worth a look, and the article’s witty commentary adds humorous ease to the linguistic study. As a person who spends a good deal of time looking at maps, however, what interested me the most was how other people reacted to the article. I turned to the Facebook commentary and drew a couple of interesting conclusions.

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This boy from Orick, California probably speaks English differently than a boy from Mobile, Alabama.
Photograph by National Geographic Photographer

First, Americans identify themselves by region. Although the maps represented their entire country—a place to which all Americans by definition belong—I found the average person’s eyes drifted immediately to their state or region, cross-checked their own pronunciation and word use, gave a satisfied smile when it was correct and moved on. They may have checked the other pronunciations or word uses to verify how odd everyone else was, but ultimately their focus was not their country: it was their region. The reason I know this? I did it too.

Readers did not stop there, however. While the majority of the Facebook commentary simply showed enthusiasm for the article and the study, some commentary was more heavily loaded. People defended their language use and occasionally denounced others’. A few Facebook shares turned into a discussion of the correct way to use English. I don’t think this was the point.

As an English major, I understand the desire to speak English in the absolute most correct way possible, but as a geography major specializing in globalization, I wonder if the idea of “correct English” is outdated. The story of the English language is a geographic one, and it is far from having a right answer. Our language came from the British, but we don’t speak British English; does that make all of us Americans incorrect? What about Jamaicans whose native language is also English? Are they speaking it incorrectly? And then there’s that whole problem with William the conqueror and the huge injection of French vocabulary into our Germanic language. Should we cut out the French “slang”? How would we say government, mayonnaise or television?

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This linguistics graphic shows words that have varied very little over time.
Graphic by Oliver Uberti

My point is, it’s wonderful that we Americans are proud of where we come from, and I think we should continue to be. But why do our regional differences have to be a battle for correctness? Why can’t they simply be fascinating?

This is where I came to my second conclusion. This collection of maps is an awesome educational tool. From this one article we can spark discussions on the origins of American English, the history of American immigration, the relevance of geography and the importance of diversity. These maps have the power to engage students in learning about the broader world, beginning with the complexity of their own country and hopefully stretching onward. In college, “experiencing the world” means leaving the country, but not everyone has the ability to do that. Why not start with an old-fashioned American road trip?  There are so many ways to expand the mind right within reach, and I fully believe that any sort of looking outward, even if it’s only to the next state and a different word for a cold meat sandwich, engenders an understanding of diversity, openness and a greater world.

(If you’re interested, here’s another cool map of linguistic differences in the United States:

By Rebecca Bice, National Geographic Education Intern

4 thoughts on “American English: You guys say y’all?

  1. Good post. I learn something totally new and challenging on blogs I
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  3. Yes, this is the biggest factor in American language, it changes in every 50 miles, there are different slangs and idioms used in different region United States. Our group of student are studying on worlds different language, and found that, all the language are different in someway from their root language. There is a diversity in the world of languages.

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