Magazine article Verbatim

Do You Speak American?

Magazine article Verbatim

Do You Speak American?

Article excerpt

Do You Speak American?, by Robert MacNeil and William Cran. (240 pp. Doubleday, 2005. ISBN 0385511981, US$23.95)

How ironic is it that the author of a book of American language is Canadian by birth? Yet there is no person more qualified than Robert MacNeil, whose stentorian and authoritarian tones have been a staple of the news world for decades.

Such chauvinism--the philosophy that the way one group (regional, cultural, or age-oriented) speaks is better than others--is a main component of Do You Speak American? the companion volume of the PBS documentary on the development of English across the United States. From coast to coast, MacNeil and his co-author, William Cran, scoped out different voices (literally and figuratively) to learn how words differ according to time and place.

America has been described as both a melting pot, in which different cultures blend together, and a salad bowl, where each component, each nationality, still retains its own characteristics. With all that in mind, how strict can or should language usage be? Some analysts believe we should strive for one "official" voice--"standard American English"--while others cling to their ancestral and socials cultures.

John Simon, a New York theater critic and author of Paradigms Lost (and, ironically, Yugoslavian by birth), represents the "prescriptivists," those who believe that there is one proper way to do things linguistically and that modern-day English is "going to the dogs." In the other corner is Jesse Sheidlower, an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, champion of the "descriptivist" school of thought, which holds that change is natural and even beneficial. MacNeil and Cran spend the rest of the book seeking to support Sheidlower's point of view. From Appalachia to hip-hop, from "Valleyspeak" and "surf dude talk," the American lexicon is ever-expanding,

The slimness of the volume belies its wealth of information. The authors find not only differences between regional dialects, but differences in perceptions people have when hearing them. Molly Ivins, the Texas-born syndicated columnist, explained the benefits of "style shifting"--changing one's vocal mannerisms to appear more intelligent. In the case of people with Texas (or Southern) drawls, she said, "people generally subtract about fifty points from your IQ the minute they hear the accent."

MacNeil was once a product of such stereotyping himself. He began his adventure with a trip to the small New England town where he was bitten by the acting bug, spending a summer in a "barn theater" some fifty years ago. …

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