Aesthetics of Everywhere

The urban scene, its people and processes. Based in southern California.

Taking to the Frontage Roads

with 5 comments

I finally got around to taking the New York Times’ dialect quiz that’s been making the rounds online. I hadn’t yet seen anyone sharing results that were very off-base for them, so my “most similar” cities in terms of dialect surprised me: San Francisco, Fremont, and Santa Rosa. All California cities, all in the Bay Area.

NYT Dialects Map

This is peculiar because I’ve spent my life – except the past few months – in a fairly compact area in the Washington DC metropolitan region, between DC proper, Maryland, and Northern Virginia. So that little red cluster you can see on the east coast on the above map describes my home region to a tee. Looking into what this quiz determines were my “most distinctive answers” (biggest differentiators), it seems that what tilted the results towards the west was this answer:

What do you call the small road parallel to the highway? frontage road

This one’s easy. I blame my use of Adventure Cycling maps for this, as I adopted the term “frontage road” into my vocabulary when cycling through the northern US this summer. I didn’t have a term for those kinds of roads before, nor did I see a need for one, but their bicycling maps frequently route you onto frontage roads paralleling higher-traffic roads. You’d better believe I’d have a term for it if I was a rancher or farmer growing up in Montana.

NYT Dialects Map

Besides vocabulary, it would be interesting to learn more about how long it takes more subtle linguistic differences to settle in, such as accent, and how that process differs between people. In Santa Barbara, I wonder what gives me away as an east coaster first: slang and vocabulary, demeanor or mannerisms, intonation, some other obvious cue?

Being that San Francisco is my favorite California city, and I’ve been told by both coasters that it’s the most “east coast” city in California, perhaps it’s not too surprising that it’s similar linguistically and culturally. Or maybe those similarities are exactly what draw me in.

These quiz results are more interesting to me than if they had managed to point directly to the east coast cities nearest to where I had grown up. Guess I’m soaking up that California lifestyle just fine. If you’re interested in more of the same, don’t miss the Pop vs. Soda map by Alan McConchie or the wonderously detailed North American English Dialects map by Richard P. Aschmann. Here’s a relevant paper on linguistic differences within California as well. Happy Holidays!

Written by Crystal Bae

December 24th, 2013 at 10:00 pm

5 Responses to 'Taking to the Frontage Roads'

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  1. The dialects map is fascinating. When I rode across NYS I noticed that tawk and cawfee didn’t make an appearance until I was within about 20 miles of Albany. Sure enough there is a line on the map marking a change in dialect.

    Also, one of my 3 cities on the NYT map was Newark. My mother is from about 30 miles south of there.


    25 Dec 13 at 6:37 am

  2. Newark was one of Adam’s results, too! He’s from very close to there. It’s fascinating how much these linguistic boundaries vary, seems appropriate to have the color gradation versus artificially-crisp lines.

    Crystal Bae

    30 Dec 13 at 6:28 pm

  3. I tried this and they were right to the city! But then some of the lingo was things I acquired along the way and not in the city of my birth (I don’t think I knew of a frontage road or service road before I left my hometown). But the idea is good.

    Long, long ago (in the 90s if my memory is at all helpful here), Christopher Lydon on WBUR had a couple of linguists on his show. One was sort of a national guy and pegged people to city. They had a Boston guy on and he told people what parts of neighborhoods they were from, and did it accurately according to the callers. That was impressive.


    28 Dec 13 at 7:18 pm

  4. That WBUR segment sounds like a fun listen. The ability to pin others’ accents down to the neighborhood within a city is impressive – wonder if that’d be especially difficult for certain cities with more transient populations.

    Crystal Bae

    30 Dec 13 at 6:33 pm

  5. I’m just coming across your posting now and as you might guess I was totally fascinated by this phenom. I took the test and it was “spot on” re: where I spent my formative years (Seattle suburbs, Bay area) but answer 1 or 2 questions differently and you end up with different results. It does strike me how many of the questions are transit-related (and specifically driving-oriented). It somehow seems like a very “American” (US) thing that “localized vocabulary for car-related transit” would be such a giveaway.

    Jonathan Hsy

    19 Jan 14 at 1:05 pm

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