If you’ve ever traveled within the U.S. and tried to order a sweet carbonated beverage, you’ve probably been misunderstood and confused. Depending on where you are, a soft drink might be called any number of things: coke, soda, pop. Ask anyone which is the right word and they will vehemently defend their preference, but why do people who speak the same language use different words in the first place?
This variation in vocabulary is an example of regional dialects. What is a dialect? You may have heard this word being used in a pejorative manner, to denigrate someone who speaks a certain way. But it actually has a complex definition and does not mean simply a bad variety of speech. Technically, there is no such thing as a bad variety of speech. Any linguist would tell you that there is no such thing as “normal” language, rather every dialect is a variation.
Broadly speaking, a dialect is a particular variety of speech used by a specific group of speakers. If that sounds vague, it’s because many things fall under the umbrella of dialect. Usually, dialects are variations within a language. They are often mutually intelligible, meaning that people who speak different dialects can understand each other. A Texan and a Minnesotan, for example, would have no trouble holding a conversation, even though they might secretly think the other person sounded funny.
Regional dialects, or dialects based on regions of land, are some of the easiest to distinguish because they are tied to physical locations. There are many regional dialects in America, ranging from very broad (“Southern”) to extremely specific (“Bronx”). You can probably name some of the broader ones, like Southern, Midwestern, and Eastern. As for the great pop/soda/coke debate, check out the map from the Pop vs. Soda survey that shows which words feel right to speakers of different regional dialects. Midwesterners and Northwesterners prefer pop; Southerners say coke; and Easterners and Southwesterners ask for soda. So the right word to use depends on your location.
In fact, regional dialects in the United States are so specific and discernible that linguists at the University of Wisconsin along with the American Dialect Society have spent over thirty years compiling the variations within American English. The fifth and final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English will be published early next year, and an online version is expected in 2013.
The word pop originates from the popping noise of a cork. Soda is a shortened form of soda water, which makes soft drinks bubbly. Coke, of course, comes from Coca-Cola (which is still based in Atlanta).
Which word do you use? Are there any other words you have noticed varying by region?