Mapping Regional Language Use

So for the thousandth (or so it seems) time I’ve gotten into this discussion with my friends from the East Coast and Midwest (I’m from Texas) about the correct way to refer to a sweet carbonated beverage, and I have finally got to thinking about ways to map locally spoken slang and jargon using GIS.  Starting a database of ‘events’ where a person uses unique language in reference to a common-place item or occurrence (I have a friend from Wisconsin who calls the drinking fountain a “bubbler”) would be an insightful way to examine how jargon or slang starts and spreads geographically.

So I decided to indulge my curiosity and create a small database consisting of the answers to two quick survey questions; What do you call sweet carbonated beverages?, and what state do you identify yourself as being “from”?.  I solicited friends and colleagues for the answers to these questions and ended up with about 150 useable responses (if you were one of the people who responded with “beer”, I thank you for the interest in the survey, but your answer was not included).  I chose to ask this question (please bear in mind that linguistics is not a focus of my studies) because regardless what you refer to it as, most people have had experience with a coke/soda/soda-pop/pop, which isn’t true for all objects of regional jargon (example: before moving to the East Coast I had never seen nor heard of scrapple) and I wanted to document the geographical extent and overlap of a single object rather than attempt to compare multiple similar objects with this first foray.

Approximately 94% of respondents identified that they referred to sweet carbonated beverages as either “coke”, “soda”, “pop”, or “soda-pop”, so I chose to focus the mapping of this data on those four responses.  I took the responses I received and calculated a ‘count’ by state of each type of response; for example, I received a total of 4 responses from people who identified as being from the state of Missouri.  Three of the respondents refer to sweet carbonated beverages as “coke”, and one refers to it as “soda”.  I took these counts and normalized them to the total number of responses received from the state and used that percentage to map the responses by state broken into ~25%, ~50%, ~75%, and 100%.  For each response (coke, soda, pop, soda-pop) I chose a single color to represent responses on the map, and varied the transparency of the color to represent the percentage of the response (25% response = 75% transparency, 50% response = 50% transparency, 75% response = 25% transparency, and 100% response = 0% transparency).  I mapped all four responses separately first (figure 1).

Figure 1

I chose to vary transparency as opposed to saturation of color (eg: monochromatic choropleth) because I wanted to be able to overlap the response maps to visualize the confluence of the regional terms yet keep the original colors of each response (figure 2).

The map above shows the overlap of “coke” responses with “soda” responses, which are displayed by the variation in colors from bright red where 100% responses were “coke” to bright blue where 100% responses were “soda” and various shades of purple and pink in between where there was a mix of responses in that state.  This kind of map can be created using a map with a double ended scale, but that type of visualization is limited to displaying the spectrum between two absolute responses, which would mean that I could only display the confluence of two responses rather than all four (figure 3).

Figure 3

One interesting thing I noticed when looking at the results of this survey is that I need to meet more people from the Pacific Northwest section of the country.  The other interesting result I noticed which is more pertinent to the questions asked in this study is the confluence of the regional jargon that occurs in the region that includes Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois.  This area represents the confluence of the “soda” and “pop” responses and is also the region with responses of “soda-pop”, a hybridization of “soda” and “pop”.

This exercise seems to make the argument that assembling databases of ideas such as regional jargon and using tools like GIS to display that information is a thought provoking and possibly worthwhile endeavor.  (I’d like to thank all of my friends and colleagues who participated in this survey that allowed me to assemble and produce this study for digestion by the blogosphere. Thanks, you guys!)

Wendy Robertson is a graduate student in the Department of Environmental Studies at the University of Virginia.


  1. Nicely done Wendy.

    Ethan’s comments about scale-dependent differences are spot-on and speak directly to a key consideration when constructing any map…how much detail will the underlying data support?

    Along these lines, take a look at the site for another take on mapping crowdsourced data.

  2. in both the eastern and western parts of Canada that I visited, they use “pop” exclusively over “soda”. “Soda” is so differentiated from “pop” that if you ask for “soda” you will always get tonic water/club soda. If I unthinkingly asked for “soda pop” and then specified “Sprite” or “Coke”, I would sometimes get that drink mixed with club soda.

    Also, Canada is NOT on the free refill train yet. Only in the American fast food chains should you expect free refills on soft drinks.

  3. This is a great one:

    I think the granularity of breaking it down by county increases the effectiveness and accuracy of the results. None of those people Wendy polled must have been from Pittsburgh because western Pennsylvania and New York are big “pop” areas. The “Rust Belt” of western New York and Pennsylvania is more similar to Michigan and Ohio, both centers of “pop,” than the east coast Philly/New York City. I grew up in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, which is torn between its Virginia/soda influence and the pop of the Rust Belt and coal country.

  4. I had seen that “Pop-vs-Soda” map Chris cites before, but find your approach much more legible, Wendy. But maybe that’s because I’m a freak hillbilly soda-pop drinker. (At least I didn’t tell you it was “sody-pop,” and get excluded from the study as an outlier!)

  5. Oregonians say both “soda” and “pop”, although I’d say “pop” predominates.

    Also, there might be something for you in the Dictionary of American Regional English. Not digitized so you’d have to pull it from the stacks–let me know if you need a stunt-librarian to perform this.

  6. It would be interesting to also map the locations of various bottling companies to see how that looks. I keep thinking about how Coca-Cola is headquartered in Atlanta and the southern part of the US refers to coke.

    I knew there was something about Kentucky….

  7. Massachusetts boy also says bubbler.

    I like the map, very colorful.