Do You Speak American?
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JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty years ago, when he was still co-anchor of the NewsHour, Robert MacNeil told “The Story of English,” a nine- part series on the development of the language through time and place. Now, Robin’s back with a back with a new question about language in our own time.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: I’m setting out on a journey now to see what’s happening to English in the United States; what answers do you get today when you ask, “Do you speak American?”
WOMAN: Do you, like, speak American?
ROBIN MAC NEIL: The question is the spark for a three-hour television trip, traveling a linguistic map of America, pursuing issues of national and regional identity…
SPOKESPERSON: Do you speak American?
JEFFREY BROWN: …Social mobility…
SPOKESPERSON: Do y’all speak American?
JEFFREY BROWN: …Discrimination…
SPOKESPERSON: He says I’m not American?
JEFFREY BROWN: …Humor and much more. A new book accompanies the series. Robin and I talked recently in his New York office. Robin, “The Story of English” was a journey through a lot of time. This one is more of a snapshot of our own time. So why did you want to make this journey?
ROBIN MAC NEIL: Ever since we finished “The Story of English,” which is 20 years ago, we wanted to come back and look in more detail at American English. And in the 20 years since then, it’s just become more interesting. Linguistic research, which has blossomed in the second half of the 20th century, especially sociolinguistics, the intersection of language and society, has come up with so much interesting material which is a little inaccessible to the general public.
That’s one reason. And another is that in the last 20 years, American English has become even more obviously the engine that is driving the language worldwide.
JEFFREY BROWN: What did you find? Is there — how much variety is still out there?
ROBIN MAC NEIL: A huge amount of variety. And in some dialect areas, it’s — the variety is increasing. In other words, instead of homogenizing our language, which many people believe the media are doing, different regional versions of American English are becoming more unlike each other.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: Can you fill her up with unleaded, please?
PAM HEAD, Gas Station Owner: Sure.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: When customers come from out of state, like me, what do they think about your accent?
PAM HEAD: I lived in Oklahoma for a short time, and I had a conversation with a girl from Texas one day, and I was in the process of buying a car. “What are you talking about?” I said, “A cah.”
ROBIN MAC NEIL: “A cah.”
PAM HEAD: She says, “What is a ‘cah?’” I said, “What’s a cah?” I said, “You know, an automobile, vehicle, thing you get in and drive.” She goes, “Oh, you mean a car.” I said, “No, cah.” (Laughter)
JEFF FOXWORTHY, Comedian: Speaking of words, I got a few more southern words for you. First one, “mayonnaise.” Mayonnaise-a lot of people here tonight. It’s kind of a gift. They come to me in my sleep. I write them down. “Innuendo.” “Hey, dude, I say a bird a flying innu-endo.” (Laughter)
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, one sees very clearly in the film that American English is alive.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: Yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: But one big question is whether it’s alive and well.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: Yeah. That’s a very big question which is — disturbs many people. And it disturbs them because it’s become part of the culture wars, in a way, a little sort of side alley in the culture wars in this country with linguistic or temperamental conservatives believing that the language is going to hell in this generation. Some people, on the other hand, believe that American language is not only healthy, but it’s going through a period of creativity not unlike the time of Shakespeare because we invent words so casually, prodigiously, promiscuously.
JEFFREY BROWN: And you get at this debate through two characters in one segment.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: Oh, yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: John Simon and Jesse — Sheidlauer.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: Sheidlauer, yeah. John Simon, who’s the theater critic of New York Magazine, a very acerbic fellow, was described some years ago by William Safire as “the prince of prescriptivists.” Prescriptivists are those who want to prescribe rules for our language and make us obey them.
JEFFREY BROWN: Here’s how it works, and here’s how…
ROBIN MAC NEIL: And here’s how it should be. And yeah, and on the other side are the descriptivists, and they include most dictionary-makers, incidentally going back to Samuel Johnson. And Jesse Sheidlauer is the American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.
American English is so creative, the August Oxford needs an office in New York to keep up with all the creativity in the language. Anyway, he is a descriptivist: Content to describe the language as it changes. And they have quite a set, too.
JOHN SIMON, Theater Critic: The descriptive linguists who are, of course, think that what the people say is the law. And by that they mean the majority, they mean the uneducated. I think the society in which the uneducated lead the educated by the nose is not a good society.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: What do you say to people like John Simon, who are really angry about what they see as a serious decline in linguistic standards in this country?
JESSE SHEIDLAUER, U.S. Editor, Oxford English Dictionary: Well, I think they are wrong, and I think they are misguided. Language change happens and there’s nothing you can do about it.
JOHN SIMON: I mean, maybe change is inevitable, maybe dying from cancer is also inevitable. But I don’t think we should help it along.
JEFFREY BROWN: You’re saying that this debate has always been around, but it seems to be greater than ever.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: Yeah, it’s been around for 300 years. And American writers like Mark Twain and Walt Whitman strongly believed that our language is at its most creative and best when it’s freest.
JEFFREY BROWN: But this was part of the American character.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: Yes, part of the American character, and that language should reflect the whole American character. I mean, Americans are great creators of slang. Slang: Some of it is discarded, some of it passes into the language.
MAN: Dude, that was gnarly.
MAN: That peak is jacked up so quick, there was no way, man. I got thrown at that lip. Couldn’t even get to my feet.
JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a segment that I found fascinating. There’s a group of fifth graders in Los Angeles playing Jeopardy, in which they were translating what they called African American language into mainstream American language.
TEACHER: Here we go.
TEACHER: We don’t have nothin’ to do.
TEACHER: Okay, quiet please.
STUDENT: We don’t have nothin-g to do.
TEACHER: Oh, I’m sorry. That is not — I’ll wait. That is not accurate translation in mainstream American English. So, you’re at minus. So, let me roll. Let’s see what team will have an opportunity to get it. I might roll you guys again. One! (Cheers)
STUDENT: We don’t have anything to do.
TEACHER: Excellent translation.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: The real impetus behind this is that language has been one of the obstacles to kids in inner-city schools, when the teachers aren’t sympathetic to what they arrive with and treat it as gibberish or as just mistaken English, and regard some kids as uneducable.
And it becomes a huge obstacle to their learning to read, to the point where the drop-out rate among urban blacks is so much higher than it is among other groups. This may be a way of relieving some of that — some of that social morbidity.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is another example where we see how language is fraught with so much history, with so much meaning, social meaning for our own time — where we live, what we do, who we associate with, what jobs we get.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: Yeah, absolutely.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: John Baugh joins us in Detroit to demonstrate an experiment he’s been conducting for years, about how Americans react to different accents. It’s called linguistic profiling. First he checked the rental housing section in the city paper. Then he calls properties that are advertised for rent. He calls first using an African American accent.
SPOKESPERSON: May I help you?
PROFESSOR JOHN BAUGH, Stanford University: Yes, my name is Michael Davis. I was calling to see if you might have any houses for rent that might be available.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: Then he calls again speaking with a Latino accent.
PROFESSOR JOHN BAUGH: Hello, this is Juan Ramirez. I’m calling about the apartment you have advertised in the paper. Yes.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: Finally, he calls in a perfectly neutral American accent, which is in fact how he really talks.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: What kind of results have you been getting today?
PROFESSOR JOHN BAUGH: I’m actually been getting some mixed results today, but generally speaking, the minority dialects do not fare as well, and particularly in the affluent communities.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: Is that race or economic class?
PROFESSOR JOHN BAUGH: It’s both.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: Everything in society shows up in the language: Our different attitudes to gender variations, our different attitudes to the role of women in society, the end of overt and legal racism in this society, plus all the enormous inventiveness of this society in this country. And it’s –and it all shows up in the language.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Robin, this was at its core a road movie. I tried to count all the vehicles that you were in. I gave up, but there was, there was a convertible and there was a jeep…
ROBIN MAC NEIL: There were two convertibles.
JEFFREY BROWN: Two convertibles. You were in a boat, you were in a train. Was it a fun journey?
ROBIN MAC NEIL: Oh, yeah. I saw a lot of the country in more detail than I’d ever seen before. And there is nothing more enjoyable than going around the country and just talking to people, and listening. I’ve always been fascinated by how differently people talk and the humor in that and the sense of personality that comes from that, and the sense of local identity. So it was really fun.
JEFFREY BROWN: Robin, thanks a lot for talking to us.
ROBIN MAC NEIL: It’s a pleasure.
JIM LEHRER: “Do You Speak American?” airs tonight on most PBS stations. Please consult your local listings for the time in your area.