You Say Tomayto, I Say Tomahto: An Intro to American Dialects

This week we are learning about dialects in Frog Hollow, American dialects in particular. We started by talking about how many different words there are for the same thing, and how people from different places speak English differently, and how they are all “right.” Then we took a class survey.

I asked them a whole series of questions:

What do you call the plastic nipples that babies use? Pacifiers? Binkies? Dumdums? Plugs?

What about those bugs that blink? Fireflies? Lightning bugs?

How many syllables does the word crayon have?

And many more. It was fun to see whether or not everyone had the same answer. Sometimes we did, and sometimes we didn’t. This makes sense, since we all live in the Seattle area, but our families came from many places.

I got the questions (and a list of common results) from the Harvard Dialect Study, although I think an easier compilation of what looks like the same info is the survey results from the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes. Even more interesting, is the Dialect Survey, which I found floating around on Facebook, where you answer 25 questions and they tell you where you’re from.  They nailed it for me — guessing two of the towns I lived in as a small child.

This was a lively, excited class activity that underscored an important idea: language is fluid, personal, and place-based, and while there may be a standardized way to write English, there are many ways to speak it.