Quiz ethics

No, no student cheating, at least not yet. In fact, I’m taking a dialect quiz that seems to be making the rounds, but in some cases, I’m not sure how to answer the questions. There are a few questions where I’m not sure how to answer because I’ve heard several of the options, but I’ve never been in a position to use any of them in my own daily life, such as the various words for a groundhog or a roly poly. More interesting, though, are the questions where I’m not sure how to answer because the question makes me think of my childhood, where I was more exclusively surrounded by one usage than I’m aware of now.

For instance, the all-around athletic shoes that you might put on for, say, PE class – it was definitely not “gym class” where I grew up – would absolutely have been “tennis shoes.” In the last ten or fifteen years, my only use of such shoes has been for my own long-distance running, so I am more likely to say the words “running shoes” now, but I view that as a very specific usage, particularly since I don’t use my current running shoes for anything other than actual running. So, I felt relatively comfortable responding that the generalized term for athletic shoes was “tennis shoes.”

On the other hand, I felt more conflicted when faced with the question on electric-powered rail vehicles that run on city streets. After six years in a city whose transit system includes “streetcars,” I have used that word an awful lot, but it is a usage that I associate particularly, though not exclusively, with that city. I think that I would have used “cable car” when I was growing up, and, in a sense, that is my sort of “generic” word when there’s no city-specific usage in the discussion. (Though I suspect this comes from a certain city-specific usage, but for me, it would have been “the” term, growing up.) How to answer these sorts of questions?

Any time I take these kinds of quizzes, I find that one complicating factor is my (sometimes subconscious) wish to wave my Western flag, which often happens, whether I’m talking to people who live in the city where I live (and who are not usually from the same part of the country where I grew up) or whether I’m responding to a linguistic quiz.

And what should I do about those idioms that I consciously affected at one point in my life, in response to books I was reading or to people I knew? One example would be that I sometimes say, “A quarter to five,” not the “five-forty-five” that I grew up with and that I still think of as the more natural expression in my own variety of English. I’m not suggesting that people in England, for example, speak unnaturally; it’s just a different variety than the one I use, even though I have borrowed from that variety on occasion.

In any case, the full 140-question quiz (to which I tried to respond with what I think of as the most “natural” option in the list) places me eerily close to where I was born. Eerily close, as in, a far greater match with that region than with the region where I actually lived for more of my childhood, which was still very much in the West. I would have expected my speech to “look” more like the latter region than like my birth region. Old habits die hard? Of course, both of my parents were from the region where I have the greatest overlap, and we visited family and friends there fairly often, but I’d have expected to have picked up some usages that would place me slightly closer to where we lived for most of my childhood. I don’t think I gave any answers that would have skewed my results away from where I lived for most of my childhood; I was actually expecting to see a greater overlap where the part of the continent where I attended school. I’ve mentioned before that my students seem to think that I sound like I’m “not from around here,” so I didn’t expect any major overlap with this specific region, but I did expect to see more from the areas where I went to school. Was I suppressing any usages that would have shifted my results? I’ll have to give it some thought, but this sort of complexity and resistance to simplistic prediction is part of what fascinates me about language study.