Where we don't speak the same language across the High Plains

Oct 22, 2013

Credit Bert Vaux (study data) and Joshua Katz (map)

We think of the High Plains as a region with a common geography, environment and economy.  But there are differences in language and dialect.  In some cases Panhandle Texans talk like other Texans and in others case they speak more like western Kansans.  And in still other cases there are differences once you cross the state line into eastern Colorado.  Browse through the dialect maps below to see some of these distinctions.  

The data for the maps comes from the Harvard Dialect Study.  Scroll to the end of the story for more on the study and links to additional maps and  information.   

Pop, Coke or Soda?

Credit Bert Vaux (study data) and Joshua Katz (map)

There’s a clear preference for “pop” (in blue) as the term of choice for a carbonated beverage in Kansas, while the Texas Panhandle prefers “Coke” (green).  Colorado mixes "soda" (red) with "pop" and Oklahoma uses all three terms.

Credit Bert Vaux (study data) and Joshua Katz (map)

The Panhandle’s preference for the term “Coke” matches that of much of Texas and the southern United States.  “Soda” is the preferred term along much of the east and west coasts as well as an isolated area around St. Louis in mid-America.

Sack or bag? 

The container that holds groceries is often referred to as a “sack” (light blue) across the High Plains until you near the Colorado and New Mexico lines where “bag” (red) becomes the dominant term.

Nationally, “bag” is the far more common term with the High Plains being something of an isolated heartland for references to grocery "sacks.”

"Boo-wie" or "Bowie" knife? 

The Bowie knife has special significance in Texas, given its namesake Jim Bowie and his role in the state's early history, and north and west Texans have a special pronunciation for the knife -- “Boo-ie” (blue).  Elsewhere on the High Plains it’s more likely to be known as a “Bow-ie” knife (red).

Across the nation, outside of Texas, “Bow-ie” is the accepted pronunciation except for a small pocket around the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia and Maryland.

“Pa-jam-as” or “Pa-jaw-mas”

There’s a sharp north-south dividing line across the High Plains when it comes to nighttime clothing.  In Kansas and Colorado the common pronunciation is “pa-jam-as” (red) while in Texas and New Mexico it’s closer to “pa-jaw-mas” (blue).

Across the nation to the east the pajama divide continues with some exceptions in Louisiana and the far northeast.

A Halloween Trick

“Tp-ing” (red) is by far the favored term for decorating a lawn and house with toilet paper in Kansas and much of Colorado and Oklahoma.  In Texas the term is less used and “other” (green) words appear. 

The south in general has “other” terms for the trick with “tp-ing” prevalent in mid-America and the west coast. (Please leave a comment below if you know of such “other” terms or have anything else to note on cross-regional language differences.)

Background

The data for the maps is from the Harvard Dialect Survey conducted by Bert Vaux while a professor of linguistics at Harvard.  The survey covered 122 questions, mainly investigating phonological differences (e.g. the vowel used in the word "aunt") and lexical variation (e.g. the word for the wheeled contraption used to carry groceries at the supermarket). It concluded in 2003.  The maps shown here were generated from the data by Joshua Katz, a PhD student in the Department of Statistics at NC State University.  Maps for all 122 questions in the survey can be seen here

Bert Vaux is continuing his dialect studies with an on-line survey with new questions.  You can take the survey and contribute to his database by clicking here.  Professor Vaux is now a Reader in Phonology & Morphology and Fellow & Director of Studies in Linguistics at King's College, University of Cambridge.