I Say, “Potato,” But My Character Says, “Patahto!”

book5When I was a little girl growing up in southeast Wisconsin, I drank water from a “bubbler,” Mom let me ride in the “grocery store shopping cart,” and if I was really good, she let me have a “pop.” But in other parts of the U.S., kids drank from “water fountains,” rode in “supermarket trolleys,” and enjoyed a cold “soda.” What we call things and how we pronounce words varies from state to state.

For writers, it is important to know how a character speaks in relationship to where he or she lives. So, this week, I have a nifty new tool for fiction writers. Maybe you have seen it online—a series of U.S. dialect maps created by a graduate student at North Carolina State University. These 122 maps depict word choice, pronunciation, and slang across the U.S. states and are a goldmine for writers.

Joshua Katz asked participants in each state to answer a series of 122 survey questions that measured language preferences. For example:

What do you call the long sandwich that contains cold cuts, lettuce, and so on?

a. sub

b. grinder

c. hoagie

d. hero

e. poor boy

f. bomber

g. Italian sandwich

h. baguette

i. sarney

j. I have no word for this

k. other

Katz plotted the results of each question on a series of U.S. maps to create a visual image of word preference and, inadvertently, a super tool for fiction writers.

Choice a: sub


Choice b: grinder


Choice c: hoagie


and so on.

“You guys” need to check this out. Or, maybe I should say, “Y’all need to check this out,” or “Yin need to check this out!” Wherever you live and whatever you say, this series of maps can add a whole new dimension to your characters’ dialogue.


Filed under Characters, Tools for Writers, Uncategorized, unusual words, Writing Tips

3 responses to “I Say, “Potato,” But My Character Says, “Patahto!”

  1. Love it! I’m going to check this out AND link to it in a future post. 🙂

    Where I come from, the sandwich you described was called a hero. Where I live now, it’s called a sub.


  2. I’ve always thought accents and regional words were interesting, and I agree, it is important to get it right for the characters.

    Growing up in southern NJ, we called it a hoagie. Here in KY, they call it a sub, even at the Jersey’s Mike’s sandwich chain (that originated in NJ!). Go figure. 🙂


  3. It’s a “sub” here, too. What I find interesting is that “bubbler” seems regional to Milwaukee while the rest of Wisconsin prefers “drinking fountain.”


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