Dec. 28th, 2013

alexiscartwheel: (Default)
In case you missed it, last weekend the New York Times posted an interactive dialect quiz, complete with fancy heat maps and stuff. Answer 25 multiple choice questions and a magical algorithm tells you what region your speech characteristics match up with best. Cool? Cool.

So I took the quiz, and I think the first time it said my speech matched best with the dialects of Springfield, Missouri, and Reno, Nevada. Excuse me, what? Well, I thought, there were a bunch of questions where I really could've gone with one of two answers, so maybe I'll switch some of them. Still no good. Springfield again, plus Overland Park, Kansas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

I lived in Columbus, Ohio, for 22 years and Washington, D.C. adjacent for another 5 or so, with short sojourns in Montreal and, well, actually, Overland Park, Kansas. But that means I should sound mostly like an Ohioan, with a few Maryland oddities—for instance, I like "traffic circle" a whole lot better than "roundabout", so I default to the former—not like someone from Missouri.

At this point, I've taken the damn quiz at least 20 times, because a) I can get freakishly narrowly focused sometimes and wanted to figure out what was going on with my results, and b) I have too much time on my hands. Here's what I've found:
  • If you only took the quiz once (congratulations, sane person!) you won't have noticed that there are actually more than 25 questions. The quiz always starts with the "you all/y'all/you guys/y'inz/etc." question, but the rest randomly change order each time, and the 25 question set changes.
  • I absolutely do not, under any circumstances, sound like I am from Boston, Providence, Jersey City, NYC, or Jackson, Mississippi. The quiz is much more consistent about who I don't sound like than who I do sound like.
  • My results were disproportionately skewed by the responses to a smaller set of questions. Apparently the more unique features of my idiolect are: "blow-off class", "potato bug", "drinking fountain", "lightning bug", "highway", and, dammit...
  • "Crawdad." The one's above were all cited as distinguishing at some point, but whether I got this question and how I answered it ALWAYS drastically changed the result. I grew up going to summer camp, and one of the activities was always going "creeking" and catching "crawdads." Were I to go creeking again, I would probably call them that. But the rest of the time, I'd call them "crayfish" because I think that's their actual name? So this one's a register problem. I do know that finally switching my answer to "crayfish" got me the most reasonable sounding result of Cleveland I'd had up to that point.
    • Creeking, fyi, is basically fishing. In a creek. While standing in a creek. I'm pretty sure this is a regional thing, too, because Google says creeking is some sort of activity involving a kayak, not wet feet and a fishing net.
    • Crawdad is one of the main factors in my repeated Springfield, Missouri quiz result.
  • I decided to settle on a single answer for each question, even though there were some I was conflicted about (e.g. I both think "dinner" and "supper" have the same meaning but don't actually use the word "supper" ever) to see if I could replicate any of my quiz results. That didn't work, because, like I said, the results were drastically skewed by the words listed above, so if I, for instance, didn't get the potato bug question, I knew I definitely couldn't be from Portland this time.
  • Cities that popped up repeatedly included: Grand Rapids, Springfield, Overland Park, Fort Wayne, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Rockford (Ill.) which are at least all in the Midwest, but I also got everywhere from Pittsburgh to Portland to Mesa (Ariz.). Basically the entire country that isn't New England or the Deep South.
  • If you take the quiz enough times, you stop having to read the questions, because you can locate your answer automatically.
  • One magical time, I got the right set of questions to land Columbus, Ohio. Don't ask me how, it was like 1 a.m. and I wasn't very scientific about any of this.
My conclusion isn't that I'm a special snowflake as much as that my idiolect is just weird enough to flummox the quiz a little bit. It's been awhile, but I studied enough linguistics in undergrad to know that I sound not only very Midwestern, but very Ohioan. If the quiz were heavier on phonological variation instead of lexical variation (but that doesn't make for fun quiz questions that make you think "They call it what now?") or if it were just longer, I'm pretty sure it could pin me in Central Ohio much more easily. 
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