If you like language…

…you’ll love this diversion.  I grew up in New York, but not recently, and haven’t lived there since I was 18.  You would think decades in Boston and the Bay Area would have covered up an accent I never thought I really had, but with twenty five questions, this gadget located my origins with amazing accuracy; here’s where it pegged me.

When you’re done playing with that, go here and help advance the science behind it with your own data.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

38 thoughts on “If you like language…”

  1. Not bad! It had my most likely origins as Santa Ana/Irvine, Santa Clarita, or Santa Rosa–all coastal California, which is dead on, and I in fact grew up about halfway between the first two.

    Several times I knew what would have been the idiomatic answer for places that I’ve lived (including for long periods, like the Boston area), but those answers didn’t sound in my head like the natural answer or “my” answer. I guess the native dialect runs deep.

    More than one of the questions has to do with one’s words for distinctive kinds of roads and highways. My answers probably pegged me pretty well as a Californian.

  2. For me it calculated a toss-up between Des Moines, Lincoln, and Wichita. Triangulating those gets you pretty close to the correct answer. Not bad considering I spent half of my pre-18 formative years in Seattle.

  3. Had me pegged as nowhere. No map, no nothing. An unexciting finish to an annoying (25 freaking questions!) quiz.

    1. …although I will say that confronting the issue of whether I say “sub,” “hoagie,” “grinder,” or “real long sammich” was zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    2. Yep. Me too. Took it twice and got no results either time.

      Is this a site failure or do the results say I’m not really from anywhere? It’s causing an unexpected existential crisis.

      1. Perhaps we are both avatars of some alien entities who can only be discovered by their bent pinkie fingers non-area-typical vocabularies.

    3. Me too.

      My choices were probably pretty inconsistent, since I’ve lived in both the south and New England or long periods.

      Also, for a fair number of the questions, I use more than of the listed terms interchangeably.

      The question about wide roads on which one drives fast left out my usual term, “interstate.”

    4. Obviously the reach of the RBC exceeds the capacity of the NYT servers; we have to be more careful posting links that will crash systems :-).

      1. Obviously.

        You’ve clearly tapped into the “Sunday mornings are for crosswords, but everyone’s too cheap to buy the print edition so we have to look for some other word fun” (SMAFCBETCTBTPESWHTLFSOWF) demographic.*

      1. I didn’t get the map, but I’m sure that with mischief night, sub, you guys, no caught/cot merger and some of my other answers, they would have correctly dropped me smack in northern New Jersey.

        I’ve lived now in California for a long time, but the caught/cot merger still gets me. No, no, no! Dawn and Don do not have the same name. They just don’t, you ignoramuses from most of the US.

        1. I was amazed to see in how few places Mary, marry, and merry are all pronounced differently.

          1. My wife is from Philly, and she distinguishes them, as well as Barry, berry and bury. Our kids and I make gentle fun of her, only managing to rile her (get her goat?) when we suggest that she likes to drink wooder.

            Also, I too got no map after each of two attempts. Spent half my childhood in central NY, the other, earlier, half in southern CA, and have been trudging around the snow belt ever since, slowly sliding further and further north and to ever smaller metro areas and towns. When I was very young, I referred to garage sales, then to yard sales and eventually, tag sales. Others, I cannot tell what I began with and what I later acquired. Perhaps this history and set of traits confused the test.

          2. I’m always surprised that this is even worth discussing. Of course they are different. If not, what happens when John announces that he is going to marry merry Mary?

          3. that would not be a problem, except for people wondering if her name is really Mary, Mary and if she may be said therefore to be quite contrary. But otherwise, they rhyme for me.

    5. I thought it did for me, but it turned out the map took about 5-10 seconds to appear after the page seemed to have fully loaded. Did you wait?

      1. I waited about 30 seconds and it finally did load.

        But the results were strange. The three main cities were New York, Yonkers, and Baltimore, the latter two of which I’ve never set foot in. Hot spots in places I’ve never lived, and only warm ones in places I have.

  4. It didn’t do so well for me. I got tagged as Yonkers, Newark/Patterson, or Jersey City, when in fact I grew up in Bawlmer and spent my early adult life mostly in Bahstan and Washington. (To be fair, the map does show a hot spot west of the Chesapeake.) I’m a hard case because my mother was from the New York area and my father, though native to Baltimore, had trained himself out of the atrocious local patois and insisted that my sister and I speak what he thought of as Standard American.

    The key question that pegged me as coming from one of four places, three of which I’ve never visited and none of which I’ve slept it, was “What do you call the rubber-soled shoes worn in gym class or for athletic activities?” I chose “sneakers,” which is the first term I learned, but in fact I call the things I actually wear (with black soles and leather uppers) “running shoes.” “Sneakers” I take to refer to canvas-top, white-soled court shoes. This may reflect age as much as region.

    I also had a problem with the location at the opposite corner of an intersection. The options included “kitty-corner,” “kitacorner,” “catercorner,” and “catty-corner.” I heard “kitty-corner” growing up, but I would now say “kata-corner,” though whether that refelts a pronunciation I’ve actually heard or simply one of the four words of Greek I actually understand is an open question.

    Another stumper: I say “sub” for the long sandwich with cold cuts, but I recognize “grinder” as word for a different thing: a long sandwich heated in an oven.

    1. It didn’t nail me, either, though the heat maps said maybe it should have: it said LA and bay area (San Francisco and Oakland are handled differently?), and I’m from Seattle. Seattle was about as strongly indicated on the heat map, but may have been less likely just because there are fewer people from Puget Sound than from coastal California.

  5. Another behavioural biometric, called natural language analysis, parses the way you use small words such as pronouns to zero in on what part of a country you come from, your age or career. That gives broader implications to behavioural biometrics, because it might become possible to identify you without you even knowing anyone was looking and, unlike most biometrics, without your consent.

    “We all have our own fingerprints in language,” says James Pennebaker of the University of Texas in Austin, who developed the technique. “Let’s say on a news website: if I look at all the comments that people are making and I start tracking one particular person, then I can identify that person in other places. Making educated guesses, eventually I might be able to track down and figure out who that person is.” Unsurprisingly, many parties – from accounting firms to intelligence agencies and law enforcers – have asked Pennebaker for help to profile individuals.


  6. The system tabbed me for Wisconsin (correct), northern Illinois, or upstate New York. The latter connection actually makes sense based on cultural ties dating to 19th century migration patterns. I am mildly impressed, considering that many of the questions had no clear-cut answers, and on a few I answered (as asked) with the more standard-English term I use now, rather than a more regional/colloquial one I grew up with.

  7. It gave me Yonkers, Jersey City and Patterson. No, no, no. “Grinder” for the sandwich question really should’ve given me away. Granted, if you ignore the cities and just look at the color shading, CT (particularly southwestern CT, where I grew up) is dark red.

  8. It got *me* right– Cleveland– and I know why, too. Pop. It even said so. But like a lot of commenters I’ve lived a few other places and am pretty sure that if I’d said soda instead, or thrown in rotary instead of traffic circle, it would have gotten confused and maybe put me somewhere in Vermont or something. It’s a clever combination of broad regionalisms and very narrow idioms and must make a dynamite 3-D Venn diagram.

  9. Enjoyed this. It pegged one of my cities as Detroit where I (and my mother) was born and returned to often and then to Irving and San Antonio Texas. Since my Air Force family lived in Wichita Falls, Tx and Bossier City, LA I can give them Irving and will keep in mind that I can usefully communicate with the folks in San Antonio. Interestingly the Chesapeake area where I live now in D.C. is also a pretty deep red for me.

  10. The Yorkshire dialectogist and phonetician Stanley Ellis, who died in 2009, had in real life the skills Shaw gave to his fictitious Professor Higgins. In the police investigation of the serial murders by the Yorkshire Ripper, he was able to pin down the origin of a voice message by a hoaxer not just to Tyneside, not just to Sunderland on Tyneside, but to the Castleton district of Sunderland: and he was right. He also warned the police that the call was a hoax, but this the police tragically did not believe.

  11. Fail.

    Wrong coast.

    Does not account for English-as-a-second-language speakers, or for those who’ve spent substantial time living overseas and therefore use the overseas terms (e.g., “roundabout”).

    Interesting irony: For three years in my early twenties — over half a lifetime ago — I was stationed smack in the middle of the “least similar” area on the map. Perhaps the fact that I hated it there shows…

  12. Gave me an error for the map at the end, but I predict it will have me pegged pretty well since I know what a “bubbler” is. (It was a brand of drinking fountains once manufactured by the Kohler company in Wisconsin; their former ubiquity in the eastern regions of the state is the source of the local terminology. I’m actually from Madison and grew up using both “bubbler” and “drinking fountain” interchangeably, but my parents are both from small towns less than an hour from Kohler.)

  13. It pegged me for Minneapolis or Buffalo – I suppose that’s realistic for a southwestern Ontario origin (since the map does not recognize Canada). I knew some of the “American” answers – like soda instead of pop, and sneakers instead of running shoes (and probably most Canadians these days say sneakers, but I’m old and stubborn). Interesting, though.

    There is little regional variation within Canada in English, except down East (especially Newfoundland). There is a lot in French within Quebec and New Brunswick (and possibly elsewhere). I knew someone who said he could tell from one’s speech what street one grew up in, in Quebec City (and he demonstrated the skill correcty with a couple of his listeners – not really a scientific test.)

  14. My test results also pegged me into the Yonkers/Jersey City/Long Island area: which is odd, because I was born and raised in Southern California – though I’ve lived in NYC since 1981. Some of my (locally-born) friends still say they can spot my “California” accent – “Freeway” seems to be the main tell – and “kittywampus” is still strange to me…

  15. pop and crawdad are dead give-aways for me. i grew up in wichita and have spent the last 20 yrs in kansas city–those were the first two cities listed for me. i confess to being a bit perturbed at tulsa being the third choice, anything that smacks of oklahoma is a blow to the ego

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