Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Tell me suttin good

What do you call a long sandwich, on a French bread roll, usually with meat, shredded lettuce, and some kind of sauce?

What name you use for that delicious creation tells you a lot about what region of the country you grew up in.  Most people in the western part of the US call 'em "hoagies."  Here in upstate New York, they're "subs," but New York City folks call 'em "heroes."  In the upper Midwest, they're "grinders."  And in my home state of Louisiana -- "po' boys."

Regional accents abound in the United States, some different almost to the point of mutual incomprehensibility.  Thus the joke:

A New York City guy was on vacation, and was driving with his girlfriend through rural Maine.  Struck by a sudden romantic impulse, he pulled the car over, got out, hopped the low fence, and began to pick a bouquet of flowers from the field on the other side.

He'd not gotten very far when he noticed that he wasn't alone -- there was a bull staring at him, murder in his eye, pawing the ground.  The poor city boy looked around frantically -- he was too far from the fence to get there first if the bull charged, and no trees nearby to climb.  That was when he noticed an old farmer, leaning on the fence and watching the proceedings.

"Hey!  Mister!" the guy yells.  "That bull... is that bull safe?"

The farmer took his pipe out of his mouth, and thought for a moment.  "Oh, ayuh," the farmer said.  "He's safe."  He thought for a minute more, and then added, "Can't say the same for you, howevuh."

And now a study by Jacob Eisenstein of Carnegie-Mellon Institute has shown that regional dialects aren't just limited to our speech -- they are developing in our tweets and texts, as well.

Eisenstein and his group analyzed the words used in 380,000 tweets -- a total of 4.5 million words.  And they found that the origin of the tweet seemed to be strongly correlated with the presence of certain items of "text-speak" (the linguistic purist in me can't really call them "words").

Some weren't surprising; "yall" in the South, "yinz" in Pittsburgh, for the second person plural pronoun.  Others, however, were strange, and were evidence that text-speak is developing its own regional character, independent of the dialect of the speaker.  For example, "suttin" (for "something") was found all over New York City; "coo" or "koo" (for "cool") in California, with "koo" replacing "coo" and becoming progressively more common as you move northward through the state; and "hella" (for "very," as in "hella tired") in northern California through the Pacific Northwest.

I find this phenomenon fascinating, and also surprising.  Regional dialects in American speech developed primarily because of two things.  First, there are differences in the primary country of origin of the people who settled an area (e.g. France in southern Louisiana, Scotland and Northern Ireland in Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, England in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maine, and so on).  Second, the lack of mobility in most populations prior to 1940 or so meant that any linguistic conventions that arose were unlikely to spread very far.

Now, however, with texting, emails, Twitter, and so far, you'd think that any spelling conventions and slang that arose would not be confined to one geographic region -- they'd spread so rapidly that either they'd catch fire and everyone would start using them, or they'd dilute out and vanish.  Apparently, this isn't the case -- Eisenstein's study indicates that regardless of the fact that we're communicating more quickly, and over far greater distances, than ever before, we still tend to communicate like the folks we live with.

So, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of the death of regional culture are a great exaggeration.  That even applies, apparently, to text-speak and tweets.  And given that these sorts of things are what give different parts of the USA their local color, I don't know about yinz, but I'm hella glad about that.

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