Dialect chat on MSNBC

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The interactive dialect quiz on the New York Times website, developed by Josh Katz from Bert Vaux and Scott Golder's Harvard Dialect Survey, has proved to be immensely popular. It's been a viral sensation on social media, much like the original Business Insider article on Katz's heat maps back in June (currently at 36 million pageviews and counting). And as in June, Katz's work is attracting plenty of mainstream media attention, too. This morning, I was on a panel discussion talking about the dialect quiz, and regional dialects in general, on MSNBC's "Up With Steve Kornacki" (segment 1, segment 2).

My convivial co-panelists (Jimmy Tingle, Lynn Sweet, and Jane Hall) shared some relevant dialectal anecdotes, but there wasn't much linguistic meat to the conversation. And as time was running short, I only had a chance to talk in the first of the two segments.

But I'll have another opportunity to discuss the tremendous public appetite for dialect maps and quizzes in a session at the upcoming American Dialect Society annual meeting in Minneapolis, held in conjunction with the Linguistic Society of America (schedule). At 4:30 pm on Friday, Jan. 3 (just before the Word of the Year vote), Anne Curzan and I will be leading a session entitled "Educating the
Educated: Talking Linguistics in the News Media." The abstract:

Linguists are rightly troubled by the widely held misperceptions about language variation and change in public circulation and concerned about the difficulty linguists have experienced countering those beliefs with linguistically-informed perspectives. In the form of a conversation about “lessons learned,” we present our experiences writing for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and the blog Lingua Franca and appearing as experts on various National Public Radio shows. We reflect on reader/listener feedback and provide advice to scholars interested in participating actively in public conversations about American dialects and language change.

As part of the discussion about how linguists can best engage with the media on issues of language variation and change, I plan on examining the media attention over the work of Katz — who, it should be noted, is not a linguist but a graduate student in statistics at North Carolina State University (and now an intern at the New York Times graphic department). If you'll be in Minneapolis for the LSA, please come join us!

[Update: I hear from Scott Golder that he will be discussing his work on the Harvard Dialect Survey on tomorrow morning's Today Show. It's great that they're talking to him, especially since Today neglected to give credit to Vaux and Golder when Katz's heat maps blew up back in June.]

[Update, 12/30: Here is the Today Show segment with Golder.]


  1. Ian said,

    December 29, 2013 @ 8:29 pm

    Kind of a shame that we didn't get more linguistic input from you. I guess what can you expect from a segment like that though, I don't think anybody there was really interested in the actual linguistic underpinnings of the phenomena or where they're headed.

  2. rpsms said,

    January 2, 2014 @ 11:03 am

    anecdote: my father had literally everyone take this test last week at the big family gathering and it placed everyone but me very firmly in the place they live (Buffallo/Rochester NY). I have lived in the Philadelphia area for about half my life now and it place me in Boston.

    So, at least in the present form, that NYT test was pretty superficial.

  3. Mike Fahie said,

    January 2, 2014 @ 11:39 am

    I thought it was interesting that Jane Hall, who is from Texas, was surprised that the program pegged her as "from the South", which she clearly does not identify with. As a Canadian living in New York, I always tend to put Texas with the South (isn't it?), but it appears that Texans don't agree.

    In retrospect, not that surprising, given Texans' sense of state pride, but it was unexpected for me.

  4. Alex said,

    January 3, 2014 @ 8:04 pm

    @Mike: If they left during the Civil War, then they're the South to me.

    Related: in the US, Ireland and the UK are part of "Europe" (what with the EU membership and all) but I've heard and read British and Irish writers refer to Europe as something outside their countries.

  5. D. Thomas Lehnhardt said,

    January 5, 2014 @ 1:58 pm

    rpsms: That's not actually terribly surprising. I'm from Upstate New York (Binghamton) and it pegged my dialect right on the mark, but that's because I happen to be surrounded by my own dialect. In Philadelphia and New York, I've been told I sound like I'm from Boston several times, especially once I've spent enough time for local idioms to make their way into my speech ("standing on line", for example). In your case, I'd bet you've acquired a big enough lexical inventory of Phillyisms and other more generically-Northeastern terms to dilute it down from barrel-proof Buffalo Inland North. (Or you never spoke it that strongly to begin with.)

    Nonetheless, I've noticed that each time you take the test you're presented with a different selection of questions, including questions you weren't asked the first time around. Take it a few times.

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