Bert Vaux on Here & Now

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Yesterday, Bert Vaux got some well-deserved kudos on the NPR radio program Here & Now, as"The Man Behind The Dialect Quiz":

With just 11 days before the end of 2013, The New York Times posted a dialect quiz on its website that drew in millions of readers, making it the site’s most popular page for the year. The quiz is designed to pinpoint the quiz-taker’s exact region, based on the words he or she uses.

The graphics intern who created the mapping algorithm, Josh Katz, was hired for a full-time position and Bert Vaux, the linguist who created the data for the test, began to see an uptick in the activity on his website.

Vaux, a linguistics professor at Cambridge University in England, says when he started teaching at Harvard University in the early 1990s, he noticed a gradual change in the way his students spoke.

He says that for the first couple of weeks, students displayed accents and used words that originated in certain parts of the country, but within several weeks’ time they had all adopted a standard form of American English that made it hard to identify what region they were from.

So Vaux created a dialect survey that he distributed to his students where they would identify words they used in their native regions. He joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss his research.


Our previous coverage: "About those dialect maps making the rounds…", 6/6/2013; "Interactive dialect map", 12/22/2013.


  1. tk said,

    February 20, 2014 @ 7:31 am

    I took the quiz, several times. I was being honest each time. Each time I tried to refine my answers to try to get the thing to guess where I was from. No such luck.
    I was born in Boston, raised in MD suburbs of DC, went to college (BA and PhD) in New Mexico.
    Yet each time, the time I was pegged as being from the Deep South, Alabama, sometimes, North Carolina.
    Was it something I said?
    Y'all have a good day,now.

  2. Lazar said,

    February 20, 2014 @ 8:02 am

    @tk: I think if you have a sufficiently varied number of regional influences in your speech, a quiz like this won't be abe to give you a very meaningful answer.

  3. Ralph Hickok said,

    February 20, 2014 @ 10:05 am

    I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, went to Harvard, and have spent most of my life since then in New England, specifically in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

    The quiz nailed me exactly.

  4. Jim said,

    February 20, 2014 @ 11:09 am

    A friend from Great Britain took the quiz and complained on Facebook book that the quiz couldn't tell where she's from. Which, honestly.

    I'm a Canadian and it didn't me get too well, although Michigan and New York both came up as likely locations.

    Nailed my wife's background, though.

    My oldest son took it and it turns out he's growing up in Los Angeles, and not northeastern New England. Darned television.

  5. un malpaso said,

    February 20, 2014 @ 11:12 am

    I grew up in metro Atlanta and I have a pretty bland, all-American accent, so I was very surprised when I took the test and it placed me in either Columbus GA, Augusta GA, or Mississippi (!) Which is not a bad predictor; 2 out of 3 being urban areas in Georgia, and all 3 being deep South.

    Maybe there's more regional vocabulary in my speech than I realize. I know that people around here who have strong Southern accents often assume I am from the Midwest… but then, people from the northeast usually can tell my Southernness. lol)

  6. Nathan said,

    February 20, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

    I'm sure a lot of people are surprised by the results. I had no idea that "drinking fountain" and "potato bug" are regionalisms.

  7. Boris said,

    February 20, 2014 @ 5:54 pm

    It got me quite correct (Not the Russia part, but I grew up and live in NJ). Some things I thought would throw it off because of my eclectic interests weren't enough I guess (frontage road and grass medians are technical terms).

    And although I've always known there were these mythical people who say "pop" for "soda", I haven't met one until I met my fiancee (from Cleveland)

  8. Tim said,

    February 21, 2014 @ 2:57 pm

    I took the quiz and was very pleasantly surprised by my results.

    Though I was born and raised in the Los Angeles area, I spent the summer before the quiz was released in Fremont, CA (in the San Francisco Bay Area), where I was very fascinated on a personal/linguistic level in Bay Area English dialects.

    My quiz results placed me in 2 California cities, and interestingly enough, one of them was Fremont, CA (the other, somewhat more mysteriously, was Fresno). I'm not sure what specific regionalisms placed me in Fremont, but it made me wonder if this quiz can also trace non-native dialects with which an individual might identify (since I felt very much at home in the Bay Area, perhaps even more so than in my LA residence).

    The outlier was Milwaukee, WI, which can perhaps only be explained by my German ancestry on my mother's side (assuming that Milwaukee's most salient dialectical features are influenced by its historic German population). It might also be fascinating to investigate an individual's/community's ancestry through dialectical features transferred from one city to another through migration or media exposure.

  9. Ron said,

    February 21, 2014 @ 6:31 pm

    @Jim — I have teenage twins, a boy and a girl. I'm from New York, my wife's from the Midwest. The quiz placed us correctly. Our son was pegged (correctly) as NY/NJ but our daughter was, like, supposed to be from, like, LA. You know? Whatever.

  10. Martin Coxall said,

    February 24, 2014 @ 9:59 am

    It said I was from Yonkers, NY.

    Actually, I'm from Basildon, Essex 20 miles east of London, UK. So basically I cheated.

  11. Mark Dunan said,

    February 24, 2014 @ 11:21 am

    That quiz pegged me perfectly, with NYC, New Jersey, and Yonkers being the choices; NYC is my birthplace and I went to high school and college in NJ.

    (Yonkers, being the very first non-NYC place you come to if you head north out of the city, will probably come up for a lot of people.)

  12. Joyce Melton said,

    February 26, 2014 @ 12:38 am

    I was born in Arkansas but grew up in a variety of western states, mostly southeastern California, surrounded however by people from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri and only a dozen miles or so from the Mexican border. Then I lived for 30 years in Orange County, CA.

    The test guessed Salt Lake City, Fresno and Bakersfield. Which, honestly, I do sound as if I could have come from any of those places.

  13. peters said,

    February 26, 2014 @ 9:57 am

    It had me at soda.

    Born in California, 5 years in Cambridge, then 12 years in Oregon, then 4 years in Cambridge, then 7 years in Oregon, then 23 years in New York City. Quiz result: Boston and Oregon.

  14. A said,

    March 3, 2014 @ 4:05 pm

    It didn't get me at all. To be fair, I've lived in four states in this country and I've lived in one other country, mostly on or around Army bases, so I've spent a lot of time around people from different areas. My dad is from another country and then he lived in several different U.S. states before I was born, and my mom is Southern but doesn't have a Southern accent.

    Since I'm not really 'from' any one place, placing my 'accent' was going to be a difficult task.

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