Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

The beauty of language differences

For me, one of the most interesting parts about coming to college and making new friends from across the country and around the world is the differences in dialect. I may tease my friend about his “Lwoong Island” accent, but I actually find the uniqueness of speech to be fascinating.

Thanks to seemingly minor factors like the natural environment, local culture, immigrants and other trends of the time, regions throughout the country have over the years developed a great variety in English pronunciation, word usage and slang. There is no announcement by a person or committee that a new phrase has been established, which then immediately becomes commonplace. A word only gets added to the dictionary after it is already well-established. Chances are, there isn’t an easily identifiable reason why any particular new word sticks around or an old one dies out — like how a video or trend mystifyingly gains viral popularity online, only on a much slower, more permanent scale. (Emphasis on the “slower, more permanent” part — languages change over the course of generations, and I’m not even going to give an example of an overnight viral video to make this column seem more relatable, because it will probably have been forgotten by the time this goes to print).

A few years ago, the New York Times released a short quiz titled, fittingly, “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk” that gives you a personalized “dialect map,” showing where you’re from based on your speech patterns. I’ve seen many people take this quiz, and it is remarkably accurate, down to nearby cities. Besides that, more interesting to me is their reactions to some of the questions. “Wow, I’ve never even thought about how I pronounce that.” “What? Some people don’t call an easy class a ‘blow-off’?”

I had many of these reactions myself when I took this quiz for the first time, in a human geography class in high school. Like most people who stayed in the same area growing up, I was never exposed to much variation in dialect until I came to Notre Dame.

I’m from a suburb of Chicago (just like half this campus, I know), but my mom’s family is originally from the Philadelphia area. This gives me a unique blend of pronunciations and word choice that seems perfectly natural to me and that I say without thinking about; however, it might sound at best strange and at worst almost foreign to someone of a different upbringing.

Despite these differences, language still unites us (except for a recent lunch-table argument over the “correct” phrase to precede a match of rock–paper–scissors). In fact, there’s a constructed language called Interlingua that is designed to be understandable by any of the hundreds of millions of speakers of Romance languages (look it up, you’ll probably be surprised at how well you can read it). So the next time you’re just talking with your friends, take a minute to notice the beauty of natural language and its uniqueness in everybody.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.