NC State grad student creates maps of regional dialects that take Internet by storm

Raleigh News & ObserverJune 13, 2013 

RALEIGH — A New Jersey native who swapped “hoagies” for “sub” sandwiches when he came to N.C. State University for graduate school has found himself in the international limelight in the past week thanks to his detailed maps that illustrate speech patterns across the nation.

Joshua Katz, a 28-year-old doctoral student in statistics, drew on his longtime interest in regional dialects to create the online maps for a statistics class project at N.C. State University. After a link to his work appeared on The Abstract campus blog, Internet users reposted it to the social news site Reddit, then picked it up. That generated a whopping 30 million views during the project’s first week online.

“It got so popular so quickly, it passed our server’s capacity limits and crashed,” Katz said.

Happily for the interested public, the computer issue was resolved quickly and Katz’s map site is now handling up to 3,000 page views per minute.

Meanwhile, Katz is being booked for media interviews, courted with book offers and is making plans for a web application that can diagnose regional origins through a speech questionnaire.

“I never expected anything like this at all,” he said.

Katz’s fascination with regional dialects developed while he was an undergraduate at Drew University, about 30 miles west of Manhattan, and expanded in as he prepared to move to Raleigh in 2011 for graduate school.

He grew up in the South Jersey town of Haddonfield, where he wore “sneakers” to high school.

Raleigh residents, in contrast, typically wear “tennis shoes,” according to dialect expert Bert Vaux, a Houston native and former Harvard professor of linguistics who is now teaching at England’s University of Cambridge.

Vaux collected the data that Katz used for his maps, using a 120-item survey with questions such as whether “soda,” “pop” or “Coke” was the preferred usage or which syllable should be emphasized when pronouncing “pecan.”

‘Yins’ and ‘y’all’

Vaux said his father grew up in western Pennsylvania, where “yins” is sometimes used in place of the better-known “y’all” or “you guys.”

“Another of my regional favorites is ‘bubbler’ for water fountain,” Vaux said. “That was the original name that Kohler Co. came up with and it is still being used, primarily in Milwaukee and Boston.”

Vaux mapped his 2002 research using colored dots for individual answers. For his class project, Katz got Vaux’s permission to use the findings, then refined them through a statistical algorithm that illustrates just how prevalent the dialect differences are in various regions.

“Hats off to him,” Vaux said of the N.C. State student’s work and the popularity it has achieved.

Katz double-majored in political science and philosophy as an undergraduate in preparation for law school, but switched to statistics when he realized he wanted to work with data and numbers.

“To me, it’s about the storytelling – having data and asking myself: What kind of story is this telling?”

N.C. State linguist Walt Wolfram, who specializes in social dialects, said Katz’s interactive maps tell a compelling story about the American people.

“We find the subject fascinating because, contrary to our intuitive notions, dialects are alive and well,” Wolfram said. “People often think that dialects are dying and regionality is a thing of the past, but these maps show that’s not really true. When it comes right down to it, people don’t care for homogenization all that much.”

Wolfram, who has produced a series of popular documentaries on regional accents, thinks Katz’ work also succeeds because the material is easy to understand and easy to access via the Internet.

“He did a really nice job of visualizing the data that had been collected,” Wolfram said.

What’s next?

Katz, however, isn’t resting on his laurels. He’s already working on improvements to the existing maps and investigating new applications for his project, for which he earned an A in professor Brian Reich’s spatial statistics class.

Katz, who just completed his master’s degree, plans to stick around North Carolina at least long enough to earn a doctorate and perhaps learn to talk like a Southerner.

“I joked with my friends that I couldn’t wait to move down here and learn to say ‘y’all,’ but it hasn’t happened yet. I usually say ‘you guys.’”

At this point, though, he’s not too worried about capitalizing on his newfound fame.

“I’m asking, ‘What’s the next cool thing I can do with this project?’ Not ‘How can I make some money?’” he said. “That’s just the way my mind works.”

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