Book review: Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk – A Visual Guide by Josh Katz

A book review of Speaking American by Josh Katz.


Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk – A Visual Guide by Josh Katz is a very easy read since it is mainly colorful maps of dialect (sometimes lexical) boundaries in the US – here’s the line between people who say X and people who say Y (and occasionally there’s an island of people who say Z). The research behind the maps comes from a dialect survey that was featured in the New York Times in December 2013. It’s rather scant on details about language because that’s not really the purpose of this book. It shows, not tell.

Speaking American by Katz book cover
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2016

To anyone familiar with linguistics, the maps will look familiar, although they are much nicer looking than the average dialect map in a linguistics textbook. Speaking American is a great coffee table book and I mean that in a positive way – it’s perfect for starting conversations between people. E’rybody loves talkin’ ‘bout language. The material is presented with such great imagery and it is so simple that it makes a great springboard into talking about talking. It happened at my house too. Both of my kids were very interested in how people said different things.

I did have a few misgivings with the book, however. I would have appreciated having the words of a few of the maps written in the International Phonetic Alphabet. For example, the maps showing the various ways that people say pecan were a bit tricky to figure out (PIH-KAHN, PEE-KAHN, PEE-KAN, PEE-KAHN, and PEE-KAN, pp. 80-81). But I suppose that the dialect survey in the NY Times wasn’t done using the IPA (and I know that the general public isn’t familiar with the IPA).

The section on California was a bit unclear to me. Katz writes that “for much of the twentieth century, California speech sounded like a mish-mash of dialects from everywhere else. California was a giant blender of the rest of the country’s speech: the general American dialect.” (p. 91) I don’t think Katz means that the rest of the country speaks in the General American dialect because that would be incorrect. But it would also be wrong to say that Californians speak in the General American dialect, so this part left me scratching my head a little.

Later in the section on Katz says that “in the mid-twentieth century, though, national radio began to replace local radio for the first time. The voices in America’s living rooms were […] Californians.” (p. 91) I’m not disputing the rise of (southern) California in the media industry, but I would’ve like to have a source for this. I assumed that national radio stations were still broadcasting shows out of New York in the mid-twentieth century. Finally, Katz seems to suggest that surfer culture and valley girl speech spread the word cool out of California to other parts of the US. But that doesn’t seem right at all.

An eye-opening part of the book is where the data seems to shows that 75% of Americans have the cotcaught merger. The cotcaught merger basically describes speakers who pronounce these words identically. Since it’s two vowel sounds that are merged into one, it means that other pairs of words are pronounced the same, such as stockstalk and podpawed.

cot-caught in Speaking American page 102
Explanation of the cot-caught data in Speaking American, p. 102.

But seeing that 75% of people have the cotcaught merger is bananas! I don’t know if I can buy this. Other linguistic research on the cot-caught merger, such as the Atlas of North American English (Labov, Ash & Boberg, 2006), would probably disagree since they show that large regions in the US resist the merger (and there are degrees to the merger, rather than just a yes-no classification).

cot-caught merger in the Atlas of North American English page 60
The dialect boundaries for the cot-caught merger from the Atlas of North American English, p. 60. The green dots represent speakers who completely have the merger.

But the data presented in Speaking American shows how many people have the merger based on their age. I think we can agree that the merger has spread, and obviously that language changes over time, but I’d like to see where the younger speakers in the data grew up. It seems like there might be an over representation of speakers from places where the merger has happened. If not though, this is some huge news.

One of the best parts about reading this book is how fun some of the sections can be. For example, if you know anyone from Philly or South Jersey, you might get a kick out of this section, which shows how some speakers pronounce the word crayons:

krown crayons in Speaking American page 107
Crayons pronounced like crowns (p. 107)

You are also bound to be surprised by certain sections. For me it was just how many people say “groh-shery store” (blue regions in the map below). I don’t think I’ve ever heard that, but look at all these people. They’re everywhere!

grocery store in Speaking American page 162

grocery store in Speaking American page 163
It’s GROH-SERY, not groh-shery. What the hell is wrong with you people?!

Finally, despite my misgivings about some aspects of the book, there is a refreshing linguistic commentary at the end, especially in the last paragraph which says

Dialect variation in American English shows no sign of disappearing […] No matter how much media we consume […] our parents, our siblings, and our childhood friends have an impact that far outweighs any homogenizing effects of television, film, or the Internet. (p. 197)

It’s nice to see such sound linguistic observation in a book aimed directly at the general public.

Katz developed the questions in his survey based on the Harvard Dialect Survey (Vaux, Bert and Scott Golder 2003) and the Dictionary of American Regional English. The former one of these is back online. I’ll talk about it in an upcoming post.