4 Tools for Investigating Regional Variation in Languages

Sometimes translators may encounter a term and be unsure about whether that term is commonly used in Canada. Other times, translators may find themselves trying to decide between two different terms or expressions that are similar in meaning but may reflect different regional preferences. While the term banks and bilingual concordancers discussed in previous sections can be used to investigate terms, they do not always facilitate quick comparisons of the way that terms are used in different regional varieties of a language. However, there is another type of tool that allows such comparisons to made.

Diatopix

Diatopix is a free online tool that was conceived by Patrick Drouin, a professor at the Université de Montréal, and programmed by Benoit Robichaud. Diatopix allows a user to enter a term or a pair of terms and to see how frequently these terms are used in different regions of the world. For varieties of English, the regions available for comparison are Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US). Meanwhile, the different varieties of French that can be compared are the varieties used in Belgium, Canada, France, Luxemburg, and Switzerland. In addition, Diatopix also works for several varieties of Spanish and Portuguese.

How does it work? As explained on the website, Diatopix allows users to see in a graphical format (e.g. a bar graph or a pie chart) the way that terms or expressions are distributed on the web. To do this, Diatopix uses the Google search engine’s custom search and categorizes the results it receives according to the main countries where that language is used (Australia = .au, Canada = .ca, Ireland = .ie, New Zealand = .nz, etc.)

For instance, a user can enter just the term wellington boots and Diatopix will return an easy-to-read visual display (in the form of a bar chart and a pie graph) showing that this term is not used very often in any region other than New Zealand, and so it would not be a good choice for an audience in Canada.

Similarly, a translator could enter two different terms such as sweater and jumper and Diatopix will generate a comparative display showing the relative frequency of the two terms in each of the six regional varieties. In this case, Canadian English shows a preference for sweater, which lines up with the US preference and contrasts with the UK preference.

Diatopix can also be used investigate spelling variants, such as analyze and analyse or theatre and theater. For the first example, Diatopix reveals that Canadian English tends to be similar to US English in preferring the “z”, while in the second example, the “re” option is more common in Canadian English, which is similar to the preference in UK English.

Try it!* How can you see if an expression is more common in one language variety than in another?

  1. Go to the Diatopix home page and select English from the menu in the upper righthand corner of the screen.
  2. Locate the search boxes in the centre of the screen.
  3. Type or copy/paste toboggan into one of the search boxes and then click the “Go” button or hit the Enter key.
  4. Consult the results, which are displayed as both a bar graph and a pie chart.
    • Note that this term is used more often in Canada than in any of the other English-speaking regions.
  1. Return to the search boxes at the top of this screen and place your cursor in the empty box.
  2. Type or copy/paste sled in the second box and then click the “Go” button or hit the Enter key.
    • What does Diatopix tell you about how the terms toboggan and sled are used in different regions of the English-speaking world?
    • Would you feel comfortable opting for toboggan when writing for a Canadian audience?
  1. Compare some spelling variants such as labor and labour to see which option is preferred in Canada.
  2. Switch the search language to French by choosing Français from the language menu in the upper right of the screen.
  3. Type or copy/paste the terms bonnet de bain and casque de bain into the two search boxes and click on the “Go” button or hit the Enter key.
    • What do the visual displays suggest about the use of these two options in various regions?

*Note: Diatopix uses data from the Internet, which is constantly changing, so the results produced may differ from the results that were shown at the time that this resource was created.

Diatopix does have some limitations that users should keep in mind. For example, this tool cannot distinguish between homographs (i.e., words that have the same spelling but have different meanings or different parts of speech, such as pop, which can be a noun, verb or adjective. So a search for the difference in regional usage between soda and pop will not return meaningful results because pop has more than one meaning. Likewise, Diatopix cannot handle inflections, so it is necessary to conduct separate searches for a singular and plural form or for conjugated verb forms.

In spite of these limitations, Diatopix still offers helpful food for though about regional variations. As stated on the Diatopix home page “The tool in itself does not prove anything but it can be used to confirm intuitions regard word usage or to explore research leads that have to do with lexical variants from a geographical point of view.”

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