Coffee Table Books

Speaking American by Josh Katz

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A coffee table book needs two things to be great; it has to have more pictures/ graphics than words and it must be a conversation starter. This book has both. Speaking American: How y’all, youse, and you guys talk: A visual guide by Josh Katz is a collection of maps depicting accents, dialects and linguistic differences across the US. The conversations spurred by the book are a lot of fun, especially if you’re talking to people from different parts of the country who can relate or exclaim about the different pronunciations and phrases; case in point, a colleague came upon a map depicting the use of the terms frontage road, access road, service road, or feeder road. Three of us started comparing our words and definitions for a frontage road and the fact that my colleague from Michigan didn’t have the same definition for the type of road that follows a freeway in the same way that someone from Montana or Colorado did.

One of my favorite maps in this book is the various ways people call that fizzy refreshing sugary beverage that’s been the bane of so many diets. This one has personal meaning for me. When I was child, I called it coke. It was all coke, even sprite and root beer. Then, and I remember this moment well, I ordered coke at a restaurant and instead of listing all the types for me to choose from, the waitress came back with a coke (I only drank sprite or seven-up at the time so understandably, I was disappointed and chagrined). Since then, I call the addictive carbonated diabetes inducing sugary drink, pop. I had to call the drink something but even so I hate the word pop. The word is too sudden, too loud, too abrasive in the way one yells it out. It sounds like violence, like the pop of a gun or fire work, the pop or a shoulder joint, or pop goes the weasel (a terrifying game scaring the crap out of children all over the world for over a century with its accompanied Jack-in-the-box toy!). Now, the word is a badge of honor. In 2009, when I first moved to Arizona, every single person would tease me whenever I said pop. They’d misunderstand me, look at me quizzically, and try to re-educate me, telling me the correct term is soda. It is a point of pride now. I’m from a place where pop is a thing. So it was no surprise when Speaking American had a map of this in its book. My mom’s family is from Kentucky, I’m from Montana and I live in Arizona. It was a small relief to spend a few years in Minnesota when I didn’t have to hesitate or pause over my word choice. I’m sure this conversation starter of a book will encourage many similar conversations among readers and people alike, since phrasing doesn’t always happen by location but also by age.

The book includes a series of maps, sometimes depicting more specific areas than the country at large, narrowing down on big cities and states. It also includes sections about unique phrasings and accents by states and region in the US. The book was a pleasure to read and look at. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in language or American customs. I first heard of the book from this article while trying to do research for how people speak around the country for creative writing purposes. They list several of the maps so you can take a look but the book has a lot more information and details about each subject. The only qualm that I have with this book is that the information provided should be taken with a grain of salt. I have no doubt that the author did his best in conducting his research and I do value the work he did, but his work is based on an online survey of 350,000 responses. A survey of English speakers in 2011 (two years before this book was published) suggests that over 230 million Americans over the age of 5 speak only English at home which means that this survey is only accounting for less than 1% of the population as a whole. The author doesn’t give enough information about his research practices to make this book a definitive examination on the subject, however, it’s still very interesting and useful for writers, enthusiasts, or people just interested in some of the dialectic quirks that happen around the country.

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