Vocabulary score by race, ethnicity, and region

By Razib Khan | December 29, 2011 10:22 pm

Mike the Mad Biologist has a post up, A Modest Proposal: Alabama Whites Are Genetically Inferior to Massachusetts Whites (FOR REALZ!). The post is obviously tongue-in-cheek, but it’s actually an interesting question: what’s the difference between whites in various regions of the United States? I’ve looked at this before, but I thought I’d revisit it for new readers.

First, I use the General Social Survey. Second, I use the WORDSUM variable, a 10 question vocabulary test which has a correlation of 0.70 with general intelligence. My curiosity is about differences across white ethnic groups by region. To do this I use the ETHNIC variable, which asks respondents where their ancestors came from by nation. I omitted some nations because of small sample size, and amalgamated others.

Here are my amalgamations:

German = Austria, Germany, Switzerland

French = French Canada, France

Eastern Europe = Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Russia, Czechaslovakia (many were asked before 1992), Romania

Scandinavian = Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland (yes, I know that Finland is not part of Scandinavia, Jaakkeli!)

British = England, Wales, Scotland

Next we need to break it down by region. The REGION variable uses the Census divisions. You can see them to the left. I combined a few of these to create the following classes:

Northeast = New England, Middle Atlantic

Midwest = E North Central, W North Central

South = W S Central, E S Central, South Atlantic

West = Pacific, Mountain

The key method I used is to look for mean vocabulary test scores by ethnicity and religion. I also later broke down some of these ethnic groups by religion. Finally, all bar plots have 95 percent confidence intervals. This should give you a sense of the sample sizes for each combination.

First let’s break it down by race/ethnicity and compare it by region to get a reference:


Next, the main course:

Finally, let’s separate by religion for Germans and Eastern Europeans:

I include the last plot because these reports of nationality have to be taken with a consideration for the structure they may mask. People whose ancestors from Poland in the United States fall into two large categories: people of Jewish heritage whose identity as ethnic Poles was contested (recall that Jews often spoke Yiddish as their first language, a Germanic language), and Roman Catholic Slavs. I suspect many of those in the “None” category are also Jews by culture, if not religion.

Second: there is a tendency of people of all ethnic groups to have lower vocabulary scores if they are from the South or Midwest. This tendency is in many cases outside of the 95 percent confidence interval. It’s especially striking in the three groups with huge samples sizes in all regions: Germans, Irish, and British. Irish here includes both Scots-Irish and those of Irish Catholic background. Not only are the sample sizes for these groups large, but the roots of these groups in some of these regions go rather far back. In particular, the division between the people of British ancestry goes back centuries in the North vs. South divide.

How to understand this? There are a lot of complicating factors.  But as outlined in Albion’s Seed and The Cousins’ Wars the divisions between the Anglo-Celtic folkways runs deep and long. If a time traveler from the 18th century arrived in the United States today and were asked which region was the heart of intellectual ferment they would correctly guess New England. Early Puritan New England was the first universal-literacy society in the world. This was to some extent a matter of conscious planning. The leaders of the New England colonies enforced limitations upon who could emigrate to their dominion. Religious exclusions and persecutions in this region are well known, but there was also a policy of rejecting the settlement of those who were perceived to be possible burdens upon the community. New England then selected for a middle class migration out of East Anglia and the port towns of southwest England. But the fathers of the early colony also rejected the transfer of the privileges of the blood nobility from the motherland, thereby throwing up a barrier to the migration of the aristocracy.

In contrast the lowland South received a more representative selection of the British class strata. The younger sons of the British nobility and self-styled gentlemen arrived to make their mark, as did those who became indentured servants and even slaves. A class society on the model of southwestern England recapitulated itself in this region. As for the uplands, what became Appalachia, an influx of Scots-Irish came to dominate the scene by the mid of the 18th century, disembarking in Philadelphia, and pushing down the spine of the high country down to the Deep South.

Conflicts between these “Anglo” groups framed the terms of debate over the 18th and 19th centuries. They were to some extent at the root of the Age of Sectionalism. Today because of the salience of race, and the prominence of the later wave of migration in the late 19th and early 20th century which remained vibrant in living memory for mod, these early divisions have moved out of sight. But they still remain. The difference between Germans in Texas and the Anglos of Southern extraction remains to this day, but note that Germans exhibit the same regional differences in vocabulary score as Anglos. Why? This may be a case where the original cultural substratum has an outsized impact (the dialect of eastern New England, made famous by the Catholic Irish of Boston, is descended from East Anglian English!).

Of course there might be a genetic difference. Intelligence is a quantitative trait, so it would be trivial to generate two populations which are genetically similar, but very different in trait value, simply through selection. In the 1630s ~20 thousands Puritans settled New England. For various reasons there was very little migration over the next century and a half. By 1780 New England’s population was 700,000, almost all through natural increase (not only was New England the world’s first universal literacy society, but its fertility was the highest in the late 17th century).

Finally, there’s the issue of disease and pathogen load. Endemic hookworm infection does seem likely to have made Southerners, of both races, relatively indolent and lethargic in comparison to Northerners. Who knows what pathogens simply fall below our radar?

Overall I think that a more fine-grained and detailed exploration of these topics is warranted. Our public discussion is too coarse, and data-thin.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Data Analysis, Demographics
MORE ABOUT: GSS, WORDSUM
  • RafeK

    Did you look at black IQ by region Audacious epigone looked at that previously and found the pattern seemed to be similar between blacks whites, which to me indicates the climate and pathogen load are the most likely primary cause of the difference between the southern and northern means while the gap between blacks and whites is relatively stable region to region with I would take to indicate that climate and pathogen load are not the most likely cause of the difference.

    http://anepigone.blogspot.com/2006/11/iq-estimates.html

  • Bryan

    If interested, this paper has a better estimate of IQ and religious fundamentalism (instead of just religious affiliation) for the 50 US states. It does not break things down by ethnicity, though.

    See Table 1 (p. 163) for IQ / Religiosity correlations and Table 2 (p. 165) for values within each state.

    http://www.people.vcu.edu/~mamcdani/Publications/Pesta,%20McDaniel%20&%20Bertsch%20%282010%29.pdf

  • http://www.facebook.com/johncarter2000 John Carter

    Nice to see the “Brit” type US whites a little ahead on vocabulary. Well done.

  • Metacodger

    Is there a way to isolate the impact of hookworm infection? Since this was largely eliminated by indoor plumbing and other advances in sanitation, so I’m curious if there’s any indication pointing to the cultural transmission of its attributes over time (or a Lamarkian explanation – 1/2 joking!)

  • rimon

    historically the northeast has had the highest concentration of Jews. so…..

  • http://mikethemadbiologist.com/ Mike the Mad Biologist

    Interesting, especially the pathogen bit, although currently, it’s not clear that the pathogen loads are worse in the South (e.g., flu transmission rates, Lyme disease incidence). It would be really interesting to do some microbiome work by state and time of year.

    Several other things come to mind:

    1) There are plenty of cold-weather, northern-ish states (e.g., Ohio) that do worse than MA (about half to two-thirds of the black-white gap).

    2) Maryland, which in many ways was Southern (it fought on the side of the Union, but was a slave state–no idea about hookworm), also has very high white, non-poor, college-educated scores. And DC whites are off the charts (323!).

    3) Are there enough data to overlay income onto the WORDSUM data? Eligibility for food stamps (typically <200% of the official poverty rate) has a large effect.

  • RK

    the dialect of eastern New England, made famous by the Catholic Irish of Boston, is descended from East Anglian English!

    I think Kevin Phillips makes this claim in The Cousins’ Wars, but the actual picture seems to be more complicated. One of the more distinctive features of Boston English — it’s non-rhoticism — was extremely uncommon in England during the initial period of settlement. (In fact, if you listen to recordings of British POWs during World War I, it’s striking how rhoticism was still widespread among soldiers — but not officers — from the Home Counties! Unfortunately, the recordings don’t seem to be online anymore.) It’s more likely that non-rhoticism with lengthening of the previous vowel was the result of English elite influence in the late 18th century. (Though this is contested.) See The Cambridge History of the English Language for details.

  • RK

    Ugh. “Its non-rhoticism,” not “it’s.”

  • Bobby Joe

    Could there regional variations in common vocabulary usages that affect the wordsum scores?

    For example, I would expect that westerners would be more likely to identify the meaning of “arroyo” and people from the mid-atlantic to recognize that “run” means stream/creek. And, I don’t know where people come from that know what “hingle” means—when a garage mechanic used the term I had no idea what it referred to.

    Chuck

  • leviticus

    Some notes about regional divisions. I suspect that Southern influenced border areas are pulling the Midwestern stats downward. Has anyone ever differentiated the Midwestern areas between the largely Yankee-Scandinavian-German northern Midwest and the Upland South extended southern Midwest? There is a wealth of historical studies about the internal political and cultural fights between the different types of Midwesterners, but most of the data used, if I recall, is qualitative not quantitative.

    The census map isn’t helpful in this regard as the two divisions of the Midwest have both Upland Southern and “Northern” Midwestern (Yankee-Scan.-Ger.) components.

    On Germans’ regional differences, I’d concur with Razib’s application of Hackett-Fischer’s theory that subsequent arrivals and minorities conform to the original 4 dominant Anglo cultures. I’d add the example of 18th-century Swiss and German settlers and their descendants in Appalachia and the Border South, a perfect example Fisher ignores.

    At this point it would be next to impossible to find individuals in Appalachia of entirely German descent, outside of a few Anabaptist strongholds and even here there has been intermarriage, but there is a substantial German element in the mix in WV, western VA and NC, and parts West settled by settlers from those areas. The German element has not lifted the Upland Southerner in terms of economic or intellectual performance beyond his more Anglo-Celtic lowland Southern compatriots. I’d also add that there is an often ignored lapsed Quaker element in this population, whose influence is also minimal.

    There is some qualitative evidence to support the notion that 19th-century Upland Southerners had a higher standard of living than the lowland whites, but these disparities might have been a heightened as part of a rhetorical argument against the economic effects of slavery on free labor and the cultural influence of Africans on lowland whites. Sometime ago there was a conference, I’ll post the link in another post, about the distinction between Appalachia and the South. Some argued that the cultural differences where heightened for rhetorical purposes. Certainly, in terms of kinship, many Upland Southerners have ties to the lowland South, and Appalachia did contribute to the settlement of the Old Southwest.

    In any event, in terms of quantitative data, there seems to be little difference between Upland and Lowland South, currently, in terms of poverty and health stats, and taking into account the effects of the Sunbelt migration, so the presence of German and Quaker ancestry doesn’t seem to have been a sufficiently important factor.

    The differences are minor: different accents, more religious diversity, different way of curing hams, a more diverse cuisine, and slightly better, more diverse farming practices in the Upland South as opposed to the Lower South. There was also a historical tendency towards old fashioned Republicanism in some districts, in opposition to the old Solid South of the Democrats. But even this political difference has been eclipsed.

  • Antonio

    Somewhat off-topic. “Early Puritan New England was the first universal-literacy society in the world”. That is quite important for later development, I would guess. I haven’t noticed the case of New England before your post. Would you kindly point me to more stuff on the topic? Best,

  • leviticus

    Conference I referred to above was the 13th Appalachian Studies Conference. The theme was
    “Southern Appalachia and the South: A Region Within a Region”. The proceedings of the conference were published, unfortunately I could not locate an online accessible format, even a partial one. Google books offered no preview.

    For my own part, I think the South vs. Appalachia is much ado about nothing, the narcissism of extremely small differences. The real distinctions: religious diversity and the substantial German element in the Border South are overlooked in dominant discourse, in favor of a less distinctive aspect of Appalachian history, namely Unionism, which some then postulate, on the basis of broad generalizations and outright misunderstandings, into a dichotomy between a fractious mountain culture vs. a hierarchical lowland culture. The problem with that, of course, is that Unionism was found in the Lowland South such as eastern NC, southern MS and East TX. Maybe the Upland/Border vs. Lowland/West Country distinctions had relevance in the colonial era and maybe in parts of the eastern seaboard, but by the 19th century and further west in TN, KY, MS, AL and TX, “upland” and “lowland” southerners had merged pretty seamlessly.

    In any event, the two areas’ pathologies have a single set of explanations. There is no need to develop a new explanation, the old ones still hold valid, the South languishes under the ongoing pernicious effects of slavery, low-church Protestantism, lower class pathologies from the British isles, and environmental determinism.

  • marcel

    “People whose ancestors from Poland in the United States fall into two large categories: people of Jewish heritage whose identity as ethnic Poles was contested (recall that Jews often spoke Yiddish as their first language, a Germanic language), and Roman Catholic Slavs.”

    Not just Poland, but the entire Pale of Settlement as well. My Jewish ancestors came from different parts of the Pale, all then part of the Russian Empire, now in Moldova, Lithuania and Latvia, and IIRC, they were all listed as having come from Russia when they came through Ellis Island, though all were considered Jews, not whatevers back where they came from.

    What I learned recently is that it was not only Jews who were scattered among different countries. Villages whose dominant or only language was Polish, Lithuanian, Belarussian and Ukrainian, as well as Yiddish, were all intermixed amongst each other, hither and yon, throughout much of what became the killing fields of WW2. The populations were defined by culture (and language) much more than borders, especially before WW1 but even up until the end of WW2. God knows the extent to which they were genetically distinct. (My source is not Snyder’s Bloodlands but another book, whose title and author I cannot recall, published about a year or two earlier. Not very authoritative I admit — sorry).

  • FredR

    “In the 1630s ~20 thousands Puritans settled New England. For various reasons there was very little migration over the next century and a half. By 1780 New England’s population was 700,000, almost all through natural increase (not only was New England the world’s first universal literacy society, but its fertility was the highest in the late 17th century).”

    Ellsworth Huntington believed that the initial selective process of choosing to cross the Atlantic (and surviving the journey) explained the economics and intellectual achievements of New England. As I understand it, one selection event like that wouldn’t really be enough to have that big a genetic impact. Is that right?

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

    1) There are plenty of cold-weather, northern-ish states (e.g., Ohio) that do worse than MA (about half to two-thirds of the black-white gap).

    yes, but ohio is a dual state. the northern 1/3 was settled from the northeast (case western reserve). the southern 2/3 from the south (the ‘butternuts’). southeast ohio is part of appalachia. the same tendency occurs in indiana and illinois, which have a ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ component.

    2) Maryland, which in many ways was Southern (it fought on the side of the Union, but was a slave state–no idea about hookworm), also has very high white, non-poor, college-educated scores. And DC whites are off the charts (323!).

    this is probably self-selection though. the DC suburbs and DC attract highly educated whites. i think some of this applies to the pacific zone.

    3) Are there enough data to overlay income onto the WORDSUM data? Eligibility for food stamps (typically <200% of the official poverty rate) has a large effect.

    i’ll look. the income data is not fine- grained. usually education has better sample sizes.

    historically the northeast has had the highest concentration of Jews. so….

    yes, but only since 1900 to a noticeable extent (the earlier german jewish wave was more dispersed, going as far the midwesten cities, and the sephards were marginal). the differences well predate the jewish migration wave, though some roman catholic scholars have argued that ~1950 secular jews ditched their white ethnic catholic political allies in the domain of culture, and aligned with liberal/secular protestants in the northeast (e.g., jews and liberal protestants are the biggest backers of family planning).

    I think Kevin Phillips makes this claim in The Cousins’ Wars, but the actual picture seems to be more complicated.

    thanks. phillips was relying on other older primary sources (david hackett fisher says the same). not surprised it’s more complicated.


    Could there regional variations in common vocabulary usages that affect the wordsum scores?

    probably. but i think they look for stuff you’d see on the SAT. immigrants do worse (see hispanics).

    Would you kindly point me to more stuff on the topic? Best,

    Albion’s Seed is a place to start.

    #13, to my knowledge you are correct.

    As I understand it, one selection event like that wouldn’t really be enough to have that big a genetic impact. Is that right?

    R = S(heritability)

    so it depends. but culturally the selection event might be strong enough. consider that 25% of s koreans are xtian, but 75% of american koreans are. that’s selection bias, + positive feedback loop of the dominance of the church in american korean culture.

  • Antonio

    Thanks. Always learning here.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    Sorry I’m late to the party.

    Regardless, I know you’re a fan of Albion’s Seed, but it needs to be noted that New England only has a population of around 14.5 million, wheras the Mid-Atlantic (using the narrow Census definition of NY, NJ, and PA), has a population of over 41 million.

    I realize certain parts of the Mid-Atlantic, particularly portions of upstate New York, eastern Long Island and the Wyoming Valley of northeastern Pennsylvania, were settled by Yankees. Still, it’s likely the majority of the northeastern population, and perhaps even the majority of the white Northeastern population, come from non-Yankee cultural areas.

    Thus, I’d be a bit nervous, if your thesis is the higher WORDSUM is in part due to Yankee forebears, equating the Northeast with New England.

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

    that’s not my thesis.

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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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