Vocab by ethnicity, region, and education

By Razib Khan | December 30, 2011 12:58 pm

A questioner below was curious if vocabulary test differences by ethnic and region persist across income. There’s a problem with this. First, the INCOME variable isn’t very fine-grained (there is a catchall $30,000 or greater category). Second, it doesn’t seem to control for inflation. But, there is a variable, DEGREE, which asks the highest level of education attained. I used this to create a “college” and “non-college” category (i.e., do you have a bachelor’s degree or not). Because of sample size considerations I removed some of the ethnic groups, but replicated the earlier analysis.

Below are two tables. One shows the mean vocab score for region and ethnicity (for whites) for those without college educations, and another shows those with college educations. I decided to generate a correlation over the two rows, even though it sure isn’t useful as a quantitative statistical measure because of the small number of data points. Rather, I just wanted a summary of the qualitative result. The short answer is that the average vocabulary difference seems to persist across educational levels (the exception here is the “German” ethnicity).

Mean WORDSUM Score by Ethnicity and Region
No college education




German 6.05 5.81 5.79 6.11
Eastern Europe 6.17 6.16 6.18 6.29
Scandinavian 6.35 5.97 6.23 6.35
British 6.6 6.21 6.02 6.57
Irish 6.66 5.83 5.69 6.58
Italian 6 5.85 5.8 6.18

College educated




German 8.03 7.48 7.63 7.33
Eastern Europe 7.7 7.37 7.5 8.09
Scandinavian 8.5 7.82 7.86 7.92
British 8.44 8.06 7.76 7.95
Irish 8.03 7.79 7.39 7.59
Italian 7.45 7.75 7.6 7.87

Correlation of college and non-college
German 0.08
Eastern Europe 0.92
Scandinavian 0.57
British 0.70
Irish 0.57
Italian 0.40
MORE ABOUT: Data, GSS, I.Q., Regionalism
  • Amanda S

    Given how much these groups have intermarried in the US, how are individuals allocated to each ethnicity? I’ve got ancestry from four of these groups that I know about.

  • RafeK

    Yeah what those white ethnicities mean is a pretty interesting question to me. I grew up ethnically identifying as irish american as did most of my paternal family. Turns out my irish ancestry amount to 1/36th, were as I am actually close to half new england yankee something that wasn’t really celebrated or promoted on either side I suspect that is not uncommon. That people pick white ethnicities based on an obvious marker like a last name(my last name is Irish) a community the grow up in. I wonder if these identities end up coding for other aspects of class and region. Assuming you have a group of people who are an equal mix of british german Irish and italian and what variables that would lead them to focus on specific element as their ethnicity?

    I have seen indications that white americans due to tend to cluster into a northern european and southern european groups but I think its pretty questionable how informative of ancestry the ethnic identities of british, vs german vs, scandinavian are for americans.


  • Cathy

    I’m another very intermixed white mutt, but I primarily identify as Volga German since that makes up 7/16th of my known heritage (the other 9/16th is a mishmash of stuff ranging from Jewish to Mandan to French to Irish with a good deal of ??? mixed in since one side of the family dates to pre-Revolutionary times.) Sometimes I was a little jealous of other people with concrete ethnic identities when I was growing up.

  • foo

    REALINC is a usable income variable

  • John Emerson

    For all 12 populations, the highest score is in the NE or the W. For 7 of them, both the NE and the W score higher than either the MW or the S. I have to admit that this pisses me off. When people are talking about America’s Failing Schools, they always talk about expensive, unionized coastal schools, but the real failure is in the interior where many the ranters come from.

    The interior populations which outscore one of the coasts are, in the South, Eastern Europeans without college and college-educated Germans, and in the Midwest, college-educated Irish, Italians, and British.

    College and non-college British, Scandinavians and Germans score worst in their areas of greatest concentration (S and MW), as do college-educated Italians in the E. Seemingly migrant populations are generally superior to stay-at-home salt-of-the-earth populations. Germans, Scandinavians, and E Europeans in the South are tiny minorities, though.

  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    When people are talking about America’s Failing Schools, they always talk about expensive, unionized coastal schools

    Now come on, John, you know which particular schools they’re talking about. And of course there’s no one to defend them – I have never heard an official in the Northeast publicly brag “Hey – our African-American students outperform their African-American students by a wide margin – we’re doing great!”

    On the contrary, the officials publicly flagellate themselves over their terrible performance because there’s an “urban/suburban” gap (which happens always to work out to ~1 s.d. when you look at it). The “ranters” on this issue come from all over. It’s just that Republican ranters pick on teachers’ unions while Democrat ranters pick on the alleged poor quality of the teachers themselves. And the proposed solutions are similarly predictable: Republicans – We spend too much money!; Democrats – We don’t spend enough! But no one ever says – You know, we’re actually doing pretty good!

  • John Emerson

    No, they all talk as if all schools are failing. Very few of the education reform proposals, NCLB or any of the others, are directed at black schools or even at bad schools. The arguments and proposals are very generalized. Black schools are used as examples because they’re very bad, and also as a cynical gimmick to make it seem as though the reformers concerned about black people whereas the teachers unions aren’t.

  • leviticus

    John correctly points to the influence of migration on the numbers.

    Eastern Europeans, Scandinavians and Italians are all relatively recent arrivals in the Southeast. While there have been some concentration of these groups in the DC environs, WV coal country, or New Orleans for at least 100 years, I suspect the majority of people with these ancestries in the South are Sunbelt era products. Note how Scandinavians, Eastern Europeans and Germans (college educated for the latter) in the South outperformed their MW cousins. That’s probably the Sunbelt factor, as the Sunbelt migration selected for upper middle class and management types. The Italian stats, however, might discredit my observation. I’m not sure if there were enough pre-Sunbelt Italian Southerners to pull the stats down, as we see with the British and Irish.

    Impossible to see, I guess, but would be interesting to see a break-down of “Irish” and “German” on religious lines. Taking into account economic class, I suspect that Catholic Irish would consistently outperform Protestant Irish everywhere but the NE. The same holds true for Germans. Once again factoring for class, Midwestern Catholic Germans would probably consistently outperform Midwestern Protestant Germans, particularly those Protestants with ancestries going back to the 18th-century German immigrants.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #8, it’s not impossible. just use the RELIG variable in the GSS.

  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    No, they all talk as if all schools are failing.

    But the ranters aren’t from the south and midwest. Tom Friedman is the poster boy for this – he’s sure America is doomed because kids in Singapore have higher scores.

  • syon

    RafeK:”Yeah what those white ethnicities mean is a pretty interesting question to me. I grew up ethnically identifying as irish american as did most of my paternal family. Turns out my irish ancestry amount to 1/36th, were as I am actually close to half new england yankee something that wasn’t really celebrated or promoted on either side I suspect that is not uncommon”

    My understanding is that English ancestry is significantly underreported in census data. One theory is that it seems too neutral (the default American ethnicity, as it were) for many Americans, and that they prefer something more distinctive, with Irish being a very popular substitute.

  • leviticus


    that’s the point. Southerners- and most importantly their leaders- have never really given a fig about education or improving its population and it has shown in their poverty and lack of development until ww2. Make no mistake, the stats for the South would be even worse if not for post WW2 military spending, which for many Southerners amounts to welfare/at risk youth programs, and the Sunbelt migration.


    thanks for the link, can easily see that as a potential time consumer. I suspect already a problem with dealing with “Germaness” in the South, West and Midwest is that it is underrepresented. Many individuals of German descent probably identify as “American.”
    This under reporting has already been recognized for the Scotch-Irish, but it could equally apply to other ethnic groups.

  • Terry Jones

    I am a white Southerner and I have no idea of my complete background. I know I have American Indian, Asian and possibly English but I am not sure. This article appears to be another slight for the South. The migration into the South has been tremendous over the last 30 years and it is changing the dynamics in a positive manner especially in your urban/surbaban areas. It is difficult for some to recognize the changes. Yes there are still issues with education and poverty particularily in rural areas where the incomes levels are still so low.

    Also I am not sure this study is representive of the white ethnic groups in the South because I grew up in area where the major ancestoral groups were French and Spanish. The city I live in today has a very large Greek population.

  • John Emerson

    Tom Friedman is from Minneapolis originally, though he’s national now. Very few of the education ranters target with any precision or care.

  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    Very few of the education ranters target with any precision or care.

    Well said.

  • John Emerson

    Part of the story with the South is that ambitious, talented people usually go to major urban centers, and few of those are in the South. The hierarchy is something like NYC-LA-DC-Bay Area-Boston, followed by a cluster including Seattle-Minneapolis-Portland, some other Eastern and Midwestern cities, and a few Southern cities: Miami, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, and New Orleans.

    From here (rural Midwest), outmigrants can go any direction but mire likely west, and the more successful ones end in big cities.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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