‘Bubbler’ versus ‘water fountain’

Be proud of your dialect


Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Collegian

By Maxwell Zeff, Collegian Columnist

I’d never heard of a bubbler before I came to the University of Massachusetts. In New Jersey, we say water fountain. There’s no debate whatsoever. So when someone down the hall from me said “I like it here, it’s pretty nice we have a bubbler right around the corner too,” naturally, this Jersey boy was bewildered. A bubbler? I had walked around that corner a couple dozen times at this point and I never saw anything producing bubbles. All I saw was a storage closet and a water fountain. In my state of confusion I asked, “What do you mean by bubbler?”

From that point on, I had entered enlightenment; in eastern Massachusetts people call a water fountain a “bubbler.” I knew that people in eastern Massachusetts spoke with a Boston accent, just a different way of saying the same words I do with my accent, but how had I never heard of this strange, alternate word for water fountain? My neighbors from the Boston area seemed perplexed that I said water fountain and roundabout, whereas I was mystified by their use of bubbler and rotary, despite our growing up just four hours apart.

Those who say bubbler are proud of it, and not afraid to defend it – it’s an icon of the Boston accent. However, the word bubbler is not native to the Bay State. There are two regions in the United States that say bubbler: eastern Wisconsin and eastern Massachusetts, most residents unaware of the other region’s usage, and both claiming ownership of the term. So why do these two places 1,000 miles apart proudly use this word no one else in the country seems to know?

Bert Vaux has a PhD in phonology and taught dialects of English at Harvard University and is the co-creator of the Harvard Dialect Survey. The survey has been turned into a quiz on The New York Times website that can tell where you live by the words you use, and how you say them. In an interview I conducted with Vaux, he suggested, “With bubbler, it appears that the term (and indeed the object itself) was able to spread from its point of origin in Wisconsin all the way eastward across what we call the Northern cultural region to its other extreme in the Boston area.”

The first uses of “bubbler” were found in one room schoolhouses in Wisconsin around 1900 referring to a ceramic water cooler made by the Red Wing Company. It was considered new and exciting technology for its time, as opposed to the prior technology: a shared metal cup. It wasn’t until the 1920s that the Kohler Company would mass-produce a bubbler similar to those of today. Over time, the invention, and the word for it, made its way east through the states between Wisconsin and Massachusetts, and eventually all the way to Boston. So, at some point people were probably saying bubbler in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other states in that area. Vaux continued, “In this particular case, the competing terms ‘water fountain’ and ‘drinking fountain’ ended up spreading into most of the North, leaving only the starting and ending points of the ‘bubbler’ trail as linguistic islands.”

Though it may not feel like it, American dialects today are more unique than ever. The American linguist William Labov said in an NPR interview that “the regional dialects of this country are getting more and more different, so that people in Buffalo, St. Louis and Los Angeles are now speaking much more differently from each other than they ever did.” The nuanced vowel pronunciations and subtle word variations between dialects represents the end result for the millions of unconscious choices our ancestors made.

Joe Pater, a phonologist at UMass, spoke with me about dialects. “One word winning out over another essentially comes down to random chance. One thing we do know about how words exist in language is that they compete with one another. You and I don’t want to have multiple words for the same thing, or any words that are too ambiguous, so there’s this competitive pressure for certain words to beat out others, all happening unconsciously through conversation.”

There’s no reason for why people in New Hampshire say “soda” and people in Minnesota say “pop.” It was mostly just up to chance that one word came to prominence in a certain area.

Though my New Jersey roots will never allow me to confidently refer to one of those H2O flingers as a “bubbler,” I urge Massachusetts natives to feel a sense of pride with every utterance of the word. The different accents and dialects of America reveal the unique history and culture of each region.

Pater noted toward the end of our interview, “One example that my students will talk about is that you hear a lot more of the Boston accent when the Patriots are playing.”

Talking about aspects of home brings out the accent in people, signifying how closely related our home and our accents really are. Dialects have a sense of ownership that go with them, and here in Massachusetts, a state not in shortage of pride, that seems to be just as true as anywhere. Coming to school at UMass has given me a newfound appreciation for New England pride. This is a large community that loves its sports teams, its beautiful land and its way of speaking like no other. There is such a connected culture here that you don’t find just anywhere, and the dialect is essentially a logo for the culture: it’s one of the first things people recognize a region by.

So the next time you pick up on someone else’s dialect, or maybe even your own, know that a dialect is the face of that individual’s culture, community and home. Be proud of your bubblers, Massachusetts, or should I say, be proud of your “bubblah.”


Maxwell Zeff is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]