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The Man Behind The Dialect Quiz

With just 11 days before the end of 2013, The New York Times posted a dialect quiz on its website that drew in millions of readers, making it the site’s most popular page for the year. The quiz is designed to pinpoint the quiz-taker’s exact region, based on the words he or she uses.

The graphics intern who created the mapping algorithm, Josh Katz, was hired for a full-time position and Bert Vaux, the linguist who created the data for the test, began to see an uptick in the activity on his website.

Vaux, a linguistics professor at Cambridge University in England, says when he started teaching at Harvard University in the early 1990s, he noticed a gradual change in the way his students spoke.

He says that for the first couple of weeks, students displayed accents and used words that originated in certain parts of the country, but within several weeks’ time they had all adopted a standard form of American English that made it hard to identify what region they were from.

So Vaux created a dialect survey that he distributed to his students where they would identify words they used in their native regions. He joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss his research.

Interview Highlights: Bert Vaux

On how he started this research

“It started when I began teaching at Harvard in the mid-’90s. I wanted to be able to figure out where people were from who didn’t have a noticeable accent — and that would include you. So I started researching what people know about dialects of English, and I found out that everything that was available at that time was from the ’30s and ’40s and ’60s and it was largely collected from old white male farmers. And I decided to start collecting material that was relevant to speakers then, especially to students in my class.”

On the difference between ‘dinner’ and ‘supper’

“I put that on my survey originally because many of my students had strong opinions about what dinner and supper meant. But when I actually ran the survey, I found there wasn’t any coherent regional distribution. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, dinner and supper are sort of randomly spread out, with a few exceptions. One is, people in the western U.S. generally only have dinner, not supper. And then people in the upper central part of the United States — North and South Dakota and Kansas — tend to respond that they have dinner and supper, but dinner is earlier than supper.”

On where people call a water fountain a ‘bubbler’

“That’s very interesting. I first came across that in college in Chicago because my roommate was from Milwaukee and he said that in Milwaukee they called the water fountain a bubbler. And I thought that was pretty funny. But then when I moved to Boston when I was 21, I discovered that everyone there said bubbler too. And each one thinks that they are the only area in the country that uses bubbler. But actually, when you look into it, it turns out that Kohler, the person associated with the company that makes fancy bathroom products, invented the bubbler and he was based in the Milwaukee area. And his term for the thing that he created then spread eastward to the inland north and reached all the way to Boston.”


  • Bert Vaux, a linguistics professor at Cambridge University in England. He tweets @BertVaux.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

This map based on Bert Vaux's research shows the breakdown of terms used for a long cold sandwich. (Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes)
This map based on Bert Vaux's research shows the breakdown of terms used for a long cold sandwich. (Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes)