What can you actually learn from those dialect maps?

Odds are you've noticed the spate of eerily accurate American-dialect quizzes making the rounds online. The questionnaires, which draw on data from the Harvard Dialect Survey to pinpoint the regionality of your particular way of speaking, are endlessly entertaining – but what findings can we, and linguists, actually glean from them?

Over on Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker has penned an interesting perspective piece on dialect maps, and what we can take away from the fact that some Americans call soda "soda," while others call it "pop" (or "coke"). She writes:

You can learn a lot about where we're going and how we're changing as a society. Because, here's the thing, contrary to what you might think, the United States isn't losing its dialects. We're not all speaking more similarly to one another. In fact, sociolinguists say the opposite is true. Even in a world where people in Topeka, Kansas and Brooklyn, New York listen to the same music, watch the same movies, and share words instantly, the way those people talk isn't merging into a single, consumer-culture voice.

If that fact seems surprising, it's probably because the myth — that distinct regional and local dialects faded over the course of the 20th century and are on their way to oblivion — used to be what experts believed, too. When Bert Vaux, a linguist at Cambridge University, was working on his Ph.D., he was taught that American dialects had largely disappeared. Mass media and mass culture were creating a mass speaking voice.

Then, about 10 years ago, while working as a professor at Harvard, Vaux put together a survey. Using 122 different speech variations — some having to do with vocabulary, some with syntax, and some with pronunciation — he asked volunteers a series of 140 different questions and linked their answers to their hometowns. Finished in 2003, the Harvard Dialect Survey forms the basis of the more-recent online quizzes you've probably taken through Facebook and Twitter. It showed that regional variations in dialect first mapped in the early part of the 20th century still existed.

Read the rest of Koerth-Baker's piece over at BoingBoing.