I held out for a few days as this thing supernova’d on Twitter and Facebook but capitulation was a matter of time. How viral is it? On the NYT’s page of most popular stories, the dialect quiz is the most e-mailed, the most blogged, and the most tweeted. As I write this, the list of the 10 keywords most frequently searched on the site has “dialect” at number one, “how y’all” at number two (the quiz is titled “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk”), “youse” at number four, “you” at number six, “quiz” at number seven, and “language” at number eight. When I loaded the quiz this morning, it came with a little virtual post-it note that read “We are currently experiencing many requests, so the quiz may be slow to generate your personal map.” It’s no sweat to find a message like that at Healthcare.gov, but at the NYT? Good lord. Bottom line: If you’re one of the precious few who hasn’t submitted yet, you will. You will.
The magic is simple. Hundreds of thousands of people were polled on a few dozen well-chosen questions — e.g., do you say “soda,” “pop,” or something else, do you pronounce “aunt” as “ant” or “awnt,” etc. The result is a granular map of American dialects capable of detecting with surprising accuracy where a person grew up based on the colloquialisms they use. Even better, every answer you give generates a dialect map for that question so you can see where the regional boundary lines fall. Some of those are predictable, like “y’all” being a southern thing or “pa-jahm-as” versus “pa-jam-as” being an east/west thing. Others, however, are patchwork and bizarre. Here’s what turned up when I chose “sunshower” as the word to describe the phenomenon of rain falling while the sun is out:
It’s a northeast thing, and northeastern transplants apparently brought it to Florida. But … what’s going on in Minnesota? I didn’t even know that it rained there. After reading Ed and James Lileks for years, I thought the only weather options were sunny and two feet of snow.
The viral genius of the quiz is that it lets you auto-post your personal dialect map to Twitter or Facebook once you’re done, which makes it the perfect mix of narcissism and pop-sociological conversation tinder for social media. It looks to me (after taking it three times) like there are around 35 questions total, only 25 of which are randomly chosen and asked of the user in each session. That’s part of the fascination too — how little the widget needs to know before it can peg you. My hunch, in fact, is that it could have guessed that I’m from New York in half the number of questions, if not fewer. According to the maps, calling the shoes you wear in gym class “sneakers” is an exclusively northeastern practice. From there, it’s just a matter of refining where in the northeast: If you say “hero” to describe a submarine sandwich and pronounce “Mary,” “merry,” and “marry” slightly differently, odds are good that you’re from the Big Apple. Let me know in the comments, though, if your results were less accurate; I suspect it’s easy to peg a New Yorker based on a few select figures of speech but harder to guess for someone who grew up in a small town in the midwest, say. Lefty blogger Kevin Drum took the quiz and says it initially got the right state but the wrong part. He’s from southern California, not northern, although that misfire appears to be the product of one ambivalent answer he gave. When he answered that same question differently when retaking it, it guessed correctly with pinpoint accuracy.
Anyway, here you go. Enjoy.