Thanks Much! On the Geography of Language

"Is this your guys's stuff?" And other linguistic markers, by Deborah Fallows.

By Deborah Fallows

As we travel around America, I like taking stock of the linguistic landscape of the places we visit. By that I mean listening for the words and phrases, and the accents and idioms of the region.  I also mean seeing the written language on the signs of shops, restaurants, and street names or in public places like museums, zoos, beaches, trash cans, and toilets. You never know what you'll run into, but many nuggets offer clues about the local culture: who is living there, where they come from, and even how long they have been around and what they value or worry about.

As a caveat, let me say right from the start that I don't mean for these posts to be any kind of thorough ethnography of any place we visit. I'll leave that to the academics. But this is an opportunity to look at some interesting questions about language culture in America, like where we might be becoming more linguistically homogenous and where we might remain strongly regional. I am trained as a theoretical and historical linguist, and I've spent a lot of my professional life applying what I know linguistically to various pursuits, from tracking children's language acquisition, to surveying language use in multi-lingual countries, working on taxonomies and search engines, and  studying foreign languages for fun, even well beyond the alleged "optimal age" for doing that! Linguistics has become a wide-open field.

One quick and easy place to start thinking about a place is in the 2003 Harvard Dialect Survey, which surveyed over 30,000 speakers in the entire country on pronunciation and usage of 122 items from how you pronounce the final consonant in "garage" to the distinction between "dinner" and "supper".

In Michigan, where over 1000 participants were surveyed, I decided to keep an eye and ear out for one of the most familiar examples, but one that is close to my heart: soda vs. pop. I grew up in the Midwest saying "pop". When I moved to New England, I heard a lot of people saying "soda" and after a while, saying pop felt funny.  But adopting "soda" felt as alien to me as adopting a British accent. I said Coke for a while, but began to feel like a marketing shill for Coca Cola. Eventually I landed on a kind of wordy, clumsy alternative, which I still fumble around with today: "Would you like some kind of a soft drink or maybe some fizzy water?"  Not good, I admit.

Indeed, in the town of Holland, Michigan, pop is what I heard!  And the survey confirms it (as does the photo at the top):

Michigan is pop country.

I was curious about another word, something I had forgotten about since childhood: the word "poem". I am sure I used to say poem with one syllable, like "pome", but at some point switched to the two syllable po-em. When I listened to one Holland resident, a poet herself, talk about her craft, she usually said po-em, reflecting her New York roots, but at least once slipped to pome. Here are the survey results for Michigan:

And finally, the plural of you. "You all" and Y'all haven't traveled north to establish much of a foothold in Michigan, where "you guys" dominates:

You guys is so strong that is has spilled over into the possessive--actually a kind of double-possessive, with both the "your" and "guys's". I overheard more than one "your guys's" on the streets of Holland, as when a dad said to his two young sons: "Is this your guys's stuff?"

With its prevalent Dutch heritage, Holland seemed ripe to have a few holdovers in the language from early settlers' days. I asked around, but people had to dig very deep to come up with a couple of offerings:  "too yet" and "once".  Noone was really clear about just what these meant, but they came close to a few references I found:

Once, a translation from Dutch "eens" adds emphasis to the message. "Can you wait once?" means, "Can you just wait?"  And "too yet" is straight from Dutch "ook nog" . It means something close to "as well" as in "I'll have to finish that too yet." meaning  "I'll have to finish that as well."

On the other hand, the linguistic influence of the more recent Hispanic immigrants, now about 23% of Holland's population,  is obvious. In some  small grocery shops, almost everything was in Spanish, inside and outside the store:

Elsewhere, the English signage on Mexican restaurants is a giveaway that they're after an Anglo clientele :

What did pop out unsolicited was the use of "family day", meaning Sunday, which is strongly observed in this church-going, family-centric town. In search of bikes to rent, I called several shops, to discover that they were available on Saturday but not Sunday. When I asked the shopkeeper if she knew another shop that might be open, the definitive answer, delivered in a tone of "Did I need to ask?" was, No, Sunday is family day. And sure enough, every bike shop and many, many others, had "closed Sunday" signs, even during the height of summer tourist season.

Thanks, much! As they say in Holland.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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