Pop vs. Soda vs. Coke

Mar 7, 2012 by

Several previous posts discussed differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and even grammar across dialects of American English. Which terms do you use: Sneakers or tennis shoes? Hoagie or hero? Dust bunny or house moss? Do you say “tomeydo” or “tomahto”? And do you pronounce cot and caught the same or different? How does The lawn needs mowed sound to you? These are just a few of the many differences that emerged from a study of American English dialects. And different techniques are now being developed to find out about such peculiarities of regional speech.

Take, for example, the words that Americans throughout the country use as a generic terms for a sweet, carbonated beverage: pop, coke, soda, and others. The use of these terms has been investigated within the Pop vs. Soda project. As you can see from their map, reposted above, coke (shown in red) is used chiefly in the U.S. South and to a lesser extent in the South Midlands, soda (shown in yellow) is found chiefly in California and the Southwest, as well as in parts of the Midwest and Northeast, while the North uses pop (shown in blue). This and similar maps have been compiled from data collected via an online survey.

A different approach to data collection has been taken by Brice Russ, a graduate student at Ohio State University, who demonstrated how Twitter can be used as a valuable and abundant source for linguistic research. According to the New York Times, Russ waded through nearly 400,000 Twitter posts to analyze several linguistic variables. He started by mapping the regional distribution of coke, pop, and soda based on 2,952 tweets from 1,118 identifiable locations (see map on the left). As has been documented in the past, coke predominantly came from Southern tweets, pop from the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, and soda from the Northeast and Southwest.

In addition to looking into the pop-soda-coke usage, Russ also analyzed  the migration of the intensifier hellameaning ‘very’ as in He’s hella cool. This form first appeared in California, but, according to Russ, has since made its way to the Midwest. The third regional peculiarity that Russ examined is a common Midwest and Pittsburgh-area syntactical construction, needs X-ed as in The sink needs fixed. This phrase seems to have moved toward the South since the mid-1990s.

Though it’s the latest attempt to harness Twitter users’ data to analyze regional language variation, it’s not the first. As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University developed a computer program that tracks the geographical location of Twitter users. According to the report, presented at last year’s American Dialect Society conference, users can be tracked within 300 miles of their location based on language usage and patterns.

One problem with using Twitter for studying dialectal variation has to do with migration: people typically retain regional features of the locales they grew up in, though they might have moved elsewhere. It would be interesting to see how these researchers resolve this problem.

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