Dialect survey goes viral

Bert Vaux

A dialect survey devised by King's Fellow Dr Bert Vaux has gone viral over the internet.

The survey was created in 2002 by Bert and his colleague Scott Golder, when Bert was at Harvard. Last month it was featured in the New York Times and got millions of hits. It was the most read and shared article for over a week, and the news app based on the survey was the most visited feature in 2013.

The survey asks you how you pronounce certain words, and what words you use to describe common objects or situations. It asks questions like 'Do you pronounce "cot" and "caught" the same?' and 'What nicknames do/did you use for your maternal grandmother?'. The goal was to build up a map of dialect variations across the United States.

The survey has appeared in social media channels such as YouTube since 2011, when people began recording themselves answering the questions. The videos are usually tagged as 'Dialect meme', 'Accent tag', or 'Accent challenge'. Bert has posted links to many of them on his own website.

In June last year Business Insider featured maps based on the results of the survey, made by linguist Josh Katz. The article got over 36 million views, and recent New York Times article has propelled the survey onto US national television and articles over the web.

Bert said: "What's been most exciting about the newest viral episode is the demonstration over a pool of several million test subjects that it is possible to identify the regional origins of English speakers just from subtle lexical 'tells'.

"I first developed this idea when I started working in the mid 1990s with Harvard students, most of whom don't have noticeable regional accents. I started searching for vocabulary items and grammatical differences that would slip under the radar of the grammar police to which students at top universities like Harvard and Cambridge are subjected in the course of their schooling, and thereby enable us to decipher a seemingly regionless individual's linguistic history.

"Few if any of my colleagues believed this was possible, but Josh Katz's algorithm based on my survey has now shown that we can pinpoint Americans' regional origins with a high degree of accuracy from just 25 questions."

Bert is University Reader in Phonology and Morphology at the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics. Currently he and his colleague Marius L. Jøhndal are running a survey of world English.

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Posted: 

13 January 2014