Regional Variation in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (2017)

EDIT: This article is based on a short survey, which can be found here. Please take the survey before continuing reading. Thank you!

Throughout the holiday season and across the world, one can invariably find elementary school students transforming the perennially popular “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” song into a call-and-response shouting match. These little additional lyrics are chanted or shouted at the end of each line of the song. An example from the first two lines of the song:

Song: Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,

Children, perfectly synchronized: REINDEER

Song: had a very shiny nose,

Children, united and deafening: LIKE A LIGHTBULB

But perhaps you sing “LIKE A FLASHLIGHT” instead. After a conversation with some of my friends, we found discrepancies in what we considered the “established” lyrics, despite growing up in the same area. I, your intrepid local linguistics major, found the prospect of regional variation in song lyrics an opportunity too good to pass up. I designed a survey at lightning speed, posted it on social media, peddled it around the internet last December.

Before I go further, I want to note that “Regional Variation in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is BACK for Year 2 and collecting new data. Click here to access the survey. I will also note that I have made some small changes to the survey. Most importantly, all the questions were changed to fill-ins after some comments about semantic priming. I also made minor modifications to clarify some questions.

This research was conducted via a Google Forms survey. I divided the added lyrics into two categories: repetitive and innovative. Repetitive lyrics largely repeat the last word or two of the preceding line (example: “all of the other reindeer (REINDEER)”. Innovative lyrics add something entirely new, which cannot be predicted from the preceding line (example: “as they shouted out with glee (YIPPEE)”. At the end of the survey I asked three demographic questions: decade when the respondent first learned the song, and the respondent’s home state and city (stressed as optional). All data was collected anonymously and all survey questions were optional.

The survey received 485 responses. Broken down by country:

· US: 374

· Canada: 34

· British Isles: 42

· Australia and New Zealand:

Other/no location: 14 (not included)

Because of the way the survey was structured and distributed, the majority of the respondents were American. As such, there is little regional variation discernible outside of the US, although each country had its own general trend. Even within the US, trends usually can only be described broadly.

I found basically no variation within the repetitive lyrics: people either followed the song or said nothing at all.

All of the following results are therefore focused on the far more creative innovative lyrics. If you haven’t taken the survey yet, I suggest taking it here before you look at the results.

Responses

Despite a large number of responses within the US, when divided among 50 states, the sample per state is admittedly small (the median is 5, but many states had only one or two responses, occasionally incomplete as well). For most of the charts, it is difficult to see clear, concrete trends.

Note that charts were only made for lyrics that had at least 10% of responses. The charts show the most common response(s), and other selected responses are listed in chart form. Blank responses and “no lyric” responses were not included, which is the source of the variation in total responses for each lyric.

Now to the lyrics…

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (reindeer) had a very shiny nose (…)

A note on how to read the maps: darker red equals more responses for the stated lyric, in this instance, “like a lightbulb”. Similarly, white means there were no responses for the stated lyric. Black states did not receive responses for any lyrics associated with the line, which here is “had a very shiny nose (…).”

The charts are fairly self-explanatory, but again I didn’t count blank responses, or no lyrics. “Other” responses that were just repetition of the previous line are not included in the gray charts, which is why numbers might not match up.

And if you ever saw it (saw it), you would even say it glows (…)

All of the other reindeer (reindeer) used to laugh and call him names (…)

They never let poor Rudolph (Rudolph) join in any reindeer games (…)

Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say (…)

This is perhaps the most visible trend in the US I found. While “in his underwear” is concentrated in the Northeast, “hohoho” takes precedence across the rest of the country.

“Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?” Then how the reindeer loved him (loved him), as they shouted out with glee (…)

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer (reindeer), you’ll go down in history (…)

Another fairly perceivable trend in the US. “Columbus” seems more common in the West, while “George Washington” is most common everywhere else.

(Due to the wide variety of results outside of America, it was simplest to summarize them in a table with a slightly different format.)

In conclusion, there is a lot of variation in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” although some lyrics (like Pinocchio and Monopoly) are fairly standard around the world. Some variation seems to be regional, but more data is needed to determine the extent of regionalization in the lyrics.

Click here to see/participate in the survey :)

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