The Lexical Landscape: Islands and Divides

With lines of civic dissent and division dominantly drawn in our media, it’s refreshing that the statistician Joshua Katz took measurements of usage to map more chromatic variations across the national landscape.  It’s striking that usage habits, for different reasons, go against the idea of a melting pot, and reveal a deeply ingrown retention of lines of difference difficult to interpret and even often to draw.

But if the results of the end-product of a class in applied spatial statistics is not clear, the maps provide sources that are endlessly fascinating to pore over not only for the varieties of what they map but to extrapolate what more they might mean, since they reflect such sharp divisions over space.  Despite our increased cultural homogenization as a nation, and the blurs of globalization, these maps demonstrate a not too surprising insularity of a range of linguistic practices, from accents to stress to word-choice.  And although based on existing data, Katz mapped those statistics in particularly persuasive form provide enough grist for thought as “heat” maps from surveys of regional changes in pronunciation originally compiled by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder.

The resulting images have spread like wildfire across the internet as vehicles to visualize national divides in ways far more entertaining and erudite than the sort of electoral infographics that still haunt the unconsciousness of anyone who has tried to track trends in the incoming results of presidential elections, predictions based on polls, or listened to the denouements of their breakdown and analysis.  Rather than mapping an actual choice or preference, these maps track and give meaning to a set of disparate choices to reveal a linguistic landscape more than its immediate causes; the sequence of maps is intriguing because they lead us to hypothesize what the multiple causes that underlie such phonetic patterns or lexical choices are–or what the social meanings of these patterns of linguistic boundary lines or pronounced insularity might be.  Rather than reveal a nation “bowling alone,” or a world atomized behind computer screens and shifting consulting positions and service jobs, they map surprisingly healthy clusters of the sociogenesis of word use far more comforting or reassuring to the eye than rigid political divides.  At the same time, the proliferation of some maps–presented by Business Insider as maps of the “deepest linguistic conflicts in America” in twenty-two images, use the map as a prism to reflect chromatic differences in ways that map the multivariegated communities within the contiguous forty-eight.  And when one compares the divisions in the full range of 122 of the questions asked in the dialect survey, the map is used as a sort of lens for refracting multiple divides we probably didn’t know existed or only tangentially kenned.

The public records of national divides on a lack of consensus seems healthy to me.  Now we know there are clear areas of the country where they continue to cut the grass, not mow the lawn, and even if associated with a traditional deep South of Louisiana, usage extend to western Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, and Indiana: mowing the lawn, cutting the grass Far more entertaining than something as indeterminate as a weather map, if only because of the multiplicity of deep divides of regional English they reveal, these maps give more vitality and dynamism to the country’s mouths in an era of apparent ideological chasms and oppositions fostered in large part by 24-7 news.  Without a legend, or what Wood and Fels call a paratext, or interpretive apparatus, the maps are simple declarative statements–each constellation of meaning in which raises intriguing questions about their possible analysis. The multiple maps through which a range of questions are individually refracted reveal the different divides in a set of composite pictures of the nation, raising questions about the fine quality of grain of the divides that maps can reveal. To be sure, the Southern United states are regularly regarded and cast as one of the strongest linguistic subdivides of regional English.   It is striking that the unique accents in southern states stands out in th composite data visualizations Katz sorted out to represent the differences in the enunciation of one single word–“lawyer”–across the contiguous forty-eight: isolation of Legal langauge However tempting to read the island of pronunciation as evidence of an isolated island of legal practices, or a veiled attitudes to what those JD’s do or protocols they follow, the map poses fun questions of how signifier is itself mapped to signified, using the form of a map to re-examine the images of division with which we’re all too familiar.   The dichotomy in the choice of pronunciation rests more in the vowel combination at the word’s center than what it signifies, however, if the insularity of that pronunciation is pronounced; more than reveal an insularity of habits of legal reasoning, the divide is structured by local dialect starkly drawn at the Mason-Dixon line: isolation of Legal langauge Not to mention its distinct preference for celebrating THANKS-giving, and not thanks-GIV-ing: thanksGIVing


The southern United States historically distinguished by cuisine, and this converts onto its strong preference for slaw, even more broadly than by its shwas:  the clear dominance of slaw across much of Kansas, Kentucky, West Virginia, northern Florida, and Texas, as well as Mississippi and Alabama, speak to its local culture of food, as does the limits of the northern Germanic influence of ‘coleslaw’ in central Pennsylvania, Ohio, and northern Illinois–and this time, the fuzziness of its line of demarcation shows greater signs of permeability to culinary terms for sides to the north:

Land of Slaw But the question of “icing” v. “frosting” presents yet another spectrum of preferential divides, which rather than being almost divided in Pennsylvania finds its clearest locus of consensus there: icing:frosting


On the other hand, if we know that the “hoagie” is Pennsylvanian and the “hero” sandwich dominates Long Island, the “sub” is eating up the country, perhaps courtesy Subway Sandwiches:


sandwiches and subs


Other habits of reference are similarly surprisingly localized, even about attitudes to how much we can abbreviate one place-name in the country to a simple article, like this map of what “the city” means (if not New York) are more deeply rooted in preferred signifiers.  The centering of abbreviation of New York City to a simple “the” surprisingly  reveals a deep westward reach of New York’s cultural hegemony, despite the persistence of insularity in the national language-scape or usage map.  There is a similar agreement–if of a very insular sort–in designating what “the city” means in what might be called the tri-state area, if the implicit referent is fuzzy across the nation, save that particular region of southern Florida, apparently permeated by northeastern habits of linguistic reference once again.

The City!


Others are more bizarre, as the rituals of the evening before Halloween:



Who can explain the adoption across Wisconsin of “Mischief Night”?

The sociogenesis of trash seems particularly difficult to explain, even though the dividing line in autumn temperatures might explain why “garbage can” dominates the triangular area from northern New Jersey to Vermont’s border with New Hampshire, over to the Great Lakes, and roughly from Chicago north, while trash cans dominate anything south of 42 degrees north, with the odd exception of Utah.  Temperate climates can’t explain the difference, give the shading of New England toward ‘trash,’ notwithstanding its apparently non-native provenance.

Garbage v. Trash


Given the compelling ways that maps create constellations of meanings and embody entities that one never ever saw, it’s tempting to indulge in armchair philosophizing about the patterns that they show. Far more than one expected, the maps show many intriguing regional redoubts of pronunciation or  pockets of word-choice that jump out of the national landscape.  These divides are surprisingly but comfortably strong, in other words, even varying among one another. Take the survival of the sneaker in the northeast, transcends pronunciation, and its survival in the southernmost parts of Florida hints at the presence in that state of many northeastern transplants:


Sneakers! Despite a lack of clear preference for dividing mayonnaise according to a three-part breakdown to components nation-wide, there are surprising hold-outs for a three-beat scanning of the slippery stuff in Montana, New Jersey and Long Island: NYC Mayonaisse

Phonetics often trump actual cuisine.  What about the sudden disappearance of two vowels from “caramel” across the Ohio River?



As much as this map for the use of “sneaker” reveals a boundary in choice of signifier, more than phonemes, one could argue that some divides of word choice are determined and perpetuated by local commercial interests.  This seems illustrated by the dominance around Atlanta, Georgia of the signifier “coke” as the empire of a brand, even if it doesn’t explain the national pop/soda divide:

soda streamThis is interesting, since we’ve moved from accents to regional English of name-brand:  yet “coke,” no longer based in Atlanta, doesn’t seem to have a base there, so much as being a dominant term in Louisiana and Alabama, even as “soda” dominates the northeast and California and pop the midwest north: soda:pop:coke


Perhaps “soda” is a term generated in larger sports arenas.  But isn’t social custom more likely to explain the intense burning reds of soda around metropolitan Chicago and Kansas City, in spite of surrounding lands that opt  for pop?  But this is a long debate, that Schwartz cannot perhaps hope to resolve in an authoritative manner.  Edwin Chen, a Twitter data scientist, for example dedicated time to construct a more pointillist map, of finer grade, while forsaking the color-range of a composite, to indicate a similar tripartite division of mapped space, with a preference for ‘pop’ clearly clustered around Lake Michigan, for some reason, and ‘soda’ dominating coastal regions almost exclusively, with a more concentrated representation in central Texas, around San Antonio and Dallas.  Is ‘soda’ just the more urban drink?  How does this map map onto drinking venues, concession stands, and watering holes?  Chen’s map, hoping to resolve these questions by geo-tagging tweets, and then making sure in a review that they were in reference to soft drinks, rather than brands, revealed a similar dominance of “Coke” around its former hub, Atlanta, confirming both its specific density and dominance.


Chen's Soda Map


He then, exploiting his databank of tweets, extended his map across the world, which aside from revealing a curious preference for pop in Italy, found the global hegemony of Coke a true case of globalization, but in surprising inverse relation to the contiguous forty-eight:


Coke in the World


With respect to Mr. Chen, the map only slightly reveals the dominance of “pop” above the 49th parallel, in part since tweets using the word ‘soda’ don’t necessarily correlate to actual usage preferences in spoken English, and ‘coke’ often tweeted.  (Anyways, tweets with the word “coke” cannot be claimed to  correspond clearly to a linguistic usage map.)

Ways of talking about and moving through space are perhaps most intriguingly map against geographic space.  Perhaps the set of maps that suggests a clear relation to habits of moving across expanse is the division, removed from phonetics and purely a notion of choice of signifier, is the pronounced preference for the freeway in the western states, or the end of the dominance of the highway in the Pacific Time Zone, and the reign of the freeway across Southern California:


Spaciousness of the Freeway

To clarify why Colorado defines one boundary of the lexical dominance of the highway is not evident.  But the maps out a distinct manner to move through space in cars, the expansiveness of freeway travel in Utah, Nevada, Oregon and parts of northern California, where light blue shading marks consensus around the constraints of highway travel, and the dominant freeway culture in green haze surrounding Los Angeles and Seattle. Motion through space or automotive travel are as pronounced as differences of phonology, revealed by the fragmentation of the “roundabout” in the Western states, Midwest, and Florida, where they are perhaps identified with planned communities or suburbia, and northern New England’s adherence to “rotary,” with Connecticut, while “traffic circles” dominate the oldest settled lands of the eastern states and those southern Florida transplants.fragmentation of the roundabout The road map is complex and would entail a detailed comparison to the national highway map.  A similar decisive break is seen in the culture of the service and frontage road, where South Carolina displays an affinity to the exclusive dominance of “frontage” in the expanses of highway in the Midwest, Mountain States and much of the west.

service roads v. frontage roads

These terms to move through space in cars are not, however, the deepest divides:  the vanishing as one moves westward of the term ‘supper,’ absent from the DC area but almost fully gone west of Utah and Idaho, indicates a striking persistence of a divide in usage where one’s surprised to find it a big deal.  The decline of “supper” in the western states, the DC area and around Detroit augurs the end of its exclusive use for the end-day meal, this ostensibly New England practice is not only to some extent retained there, but ingrained in the Dakotas:  supper has been extinct, to judge by the usage map, in California, Oregon, and Washington, and lost distinctive meaning in much of the rest of the country.

Limits of Supper, melding with dinner

The deep divides continue about the phonetic habits difficult to analyze as linguistic divides.  The lines of division around vowel pattern of “crayon,” that almost universal tool of creative expression in the arty preschool set, is complex to imagine or assign to any cause:  the central Eastern states seem linked to the deep south, in contrast to the word’s contraction to one syllable in northern Wisconsin and the dominance of a more open second syllable across western states.  These clearly marked divides, far more difficult to explain, may be tied to preschool cultures, but is more likely linked to an interesting variation among some single-usage pockets and significant ranges of hybridised pronunciation.


At the end of the day, there is no red vs. blue in the way we speak, even if an infinite range of oppositions and variations pervade.

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Filed under Bert Vaux, Bert Vaux and Scott Golder, data visualization, linguistic boundary lines, maps of regional English, regional English, soda v. pop, statistical maps, Twitter-feeds

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