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The Wonders of Language

Buzz Poole
12/20/2011 - 00:00

Language is an amazing human invention that often confuses as much as it elucidates. That said, it is the best system we have to communicate with one another so we all work with it the best we can. Within certain countries, different dialects reign supreme, making textbook grammar and vocabulary lessons obsolete. In Japan, for example, there are different words for “home” depending on whether you are in the Kansai region or in Tokyo. If you go to Spain and speak Spanish learned in the Americas, no matter how fluently, you will be called out. In Spain, my wife, a very capable Spanish speaker, was told she sounded like a Mexican. Once, before leaving for a trip to Argentina, I was speaking to a Cuban friend who warned me that to his ear Argentines sounded like they were whining all of the time.

Of course, English is a finicky language rife with inconsistencies and nuances that elude native speakers as much as those learning it as a second language. Oddities of spelling and syntax only became more confused as English spread across North America, where culture and geography forged various dialects and pronunciations. In Massachusetts, locals infamously favor a long, flat “a” that spreads across words, like in this old chestnut: “Park the car in Harvard Yard.” Get multigenerational Boston residents, like my in-laws, to say this and the “r” all but disappears from these words. My Philadelphia upbringing is sometimes flagged when I say “water,” which sounds more like “warder” or “warter.” Why is this and where are these lines of pronunciation drawn?

Well, Rick Aschmann might not be able to explain the why, but he has put a staggering amount of effort into demarcating American dialects with a map and loads of data. I’ve only just discovered this project (thanks to Gulliver’s “Greatest Hits of 2011”) so I’m still wrapping my head around it, but it is well worth a look.

According to Aschmann, there are eight major dialect areas in the United States, which unfurl from east to west. Based on this movement, Aschmann has determined that “Nebraska is unique . . . in that it is the linguistic center of North America, where east, west, north, and south meet. Thus, besides the fact that it has four dialect areas based on the blue and red lines, 2 major linguistic divisions also run through it: the light blue cot-caught line (running north to south, separating the blue hatched area from the non-hatched area), which divides the U.S. into western and eastern regions, and the purple pin-pen line (running east to west), which divides the U.S. into northern and southern regions.”

That’s only the tip of this linguistic iceberg. But if you’ve ever wondered about why and how people pronounce certain words, this site is as good a place to look as any.

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