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.