The Word Cloud of a Town

How the people of Sioux Falls describe themselves and their hometown.
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John Tierney and Deborah Fallows

It’s time for a little linguistic frolic around the country. In the last 9 months, we’ve flown in our small plane from Wyoming to South Dakota to Maine to the Carolinas to California. There were lots of places in between, and there are lots more to come.

One lesson I’ve learned along the way is that regional language is alive and well.  We all know the obvious examples:  In the South, it is the accents, of course. In New England, it is classic vocabulary like “wicked,” and in the upper Midwest, there are the grammatical constructions like “Are you coming with?”

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I’ve learned another thing, this one from listening to people talk about something very important to them: the particular traits of the place where they live. When people talk about their hometowns, they choose their words and phrases deliberately. It is interesting that there is a small set of  common words that pop up everywhere, the ubiquitous words of the era, to be sure. They are words like “community” and “sustainability” and “local.” 

It is equally interesting that there are very distinctive vocabulary sets for each town, which are oft-repeated by many people in the town. They form an odd collection:  “poised” or “balancing act” or “safe,” for example.

And also, there are statements or questions unique and curious (at least to me), that seem to come out of nowhere and be part of the established lore of the town, like “Have you tried the tap water?” or “Sunday is family day.”  People in Greenville SC and Holland MI, do you recognize yourselves?

I decided to do a little experiment with the language.  It is an unscientific experiment, to be sure, and the findings wouldn’t stand up in court. But at least to the ears of this beholder, the findings are telling and they ring true. 

So, I went through all my notebooks of our visits over the last 9 months to towns around America. I have notes of the interviews and conversations we had with politicians and educators, city administrators, school kids, academics, newspaper editors, and business people. These happened in offices, at factories, or pizza dinners with high school kids, tours at public schools, home visits to refugees, casual encounters in restaurants, at museums, at local shops, and best of all, brewpubs, where talk flows freely.

I assembled lists of words or phrases from each town -- all centered around how people describe their towns, or how they point to what is important in their towns.

A subjective exercise? Obviously, Yes. If you read through my notebooks, your lists might look different from mine.  I admit all that. Nonetheless, when I worked with John Tierney to throw these words and phrases into an app for a word cloud generator: Voila! The result was a pretty, and to me often clarifying view of a town, from the words of its own people.

Here, as at the top of the post, is Sioux Falls. 

And here is what I glean from the word cloud of Sioux Falls:

How we live:  Here is the stuff of everyday life.  Many Sioux Falls folks said it was important to them that Sioux Falls was a safe town. Safe, Safety, a real safe place were all variations of this sentiment.

This came from all sorts of people: the home-grown teen-agers (and their parents), who talked about how they never worried about where they went or when. It also came from recently-arrived refugees who were assigned to Sioux Falls after often years in camps around Africa or Asia, or others who had managed to get themselves relocated to Sioux Falls, by way of other less safe cities in the US. Word had gotten around that it was a safe and good place for refugees to settle.

A phrase I hear often was that it was an “easy life” in Sioux Falls, this said with a sense of pride rather than that they were getting a good deal somehow. I think people were referring to logistics here, but the starting points of the residents surprised me. People with jobs and families remarked at how the commutes and drive times were short.  And one high school girl, a girl from the Sudan, said that could walk just a mile or so from her house to reach the grocery store, where she both worked and shopped. “A mile, with groceries, in the winter in Sioux Falls,” I remember thinking at the time, and this was her definition of an “easy life.

And then there’s the pace of life. Many years ago, a Texan first explained to me that a “New York minute” really lasts just a second, as in “Yeah, yeah, hang on; I’ll be ready in a New York minute.”  I heard this, and also rush minute in Sioux Falls, as though it needed to be distinguished from the more relaxed pace of daily life.

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Deborah Fallows is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and the author of Dreaming in Chinese.

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