Thirteen/WNET New York's Do You Speak American?
featuring celebrated journalist and writer Robert MacNeil in his
first public television documentary since 1995 - is a celebration of
Americans as seen - and heard - through the way we speak. Here
some of the topics you'll learn more about in the
broadcast, and on our Web site:
Mass media and language
- Exposure to mass media is not homogenizing American language or
making us all talk the same.
- While some localized dialects are dying out--for example in
Appalachia and on the islands off the Carolinas-it is due to population
movements, not the media.
- Regional dialects, accents and pronunciations of American English
remain vigorous and some are growing more distinctive, not less.
- Changes in pronunciation that linguists consider revolutionary
are occurring in cities around the Great Lakes where, for example, the
vowel in busses can sound like bosses, and block sounds more like black.
- Media exposure can spread new vocabulary and give people in
different regions an understanding of the "standard American"
broadcasters use, but it does not make listeners speak that way
- People cling to local speech patterns, such as the distinctive
speech of Pittsburgh, to give them a sense of place and belonging. As
one linguist, Carmen Fought, puts it: "People want to talk like the
people they want to be like."
- Due to huge migration to the South and Southwest and the national
appeal of Country Music, Southern speech is now the largest accent
group in the U.S.
- The dominant form is what linguists call Inland Southern,
deriving from Appalachia, with the final "r" pronounced in words such
as mother. The Plantation Southern of the coastal plains, with its
r-less pronunciation, is dying out. Southerners are now pronouncing
- Despite decades of progress in civil rights, and the rise of a
large black middle class, inner city African-Americans talk less like
Americans than they did two and three generations ago. More separate
language means more separate peoples.
- White Americans and many blacks consider Black English or street
talk bad or lazy English or even "gibberish." Since many teachers share
that view, language is a major obstacle for black children at school.
- Paradoxically, white America continues to borrow black language
as enthusiastically as ever, as it does black music, most recently in
the huge Hip Hop craze among white teenagers.
The effect of Hispanic/Latino immigration:
- Many Americans fear that continuous Hispanic migration, and large
concentrations of Spanish speakers, threaten American English. That
fear is one motive behind the so far unsuccessful campaign to make
English our official language. Do You Speak American? argues that
Mexican and other Hispanic migrants are learning English at the same
generational rate as previous immigrants groups. By the second
generation many can no longer speak Spanish.
Is American English declining?
- Many Americans believe that our language is in serious decline,
with schools neglecting grammar and the media mangling it. Professional
linguists do not see decline. They see language reflecting a society
which has become more informal is its dress and manners, more
permissive in its sexual morality, but still quite concerned with
The influence of California:
- A California dialect is emerging and becoming more influential
across the U.S. and in the world. With elements of Valley Girl and
Surfer Dude, more Americans are sounding like Californians in fronting
vowels, so that do sounds like dew, and raising their voices at the end
of sentences to make statements sound like questions.
Teaching computers to speak American
- One of the big unknowns about the future of our language is what
effect computers will have. In Silicon Valley, a major focus in
computer development is the effort to make computers speak and
understand us. Will the technology, and the business imperatives behind
it, create an irresistible drive to more standard speech? If so, which
accents or varieties of American speech will that leave out?
The role of women:
- One of the most interesting ideas we encounter is that language
change is driven by women, who are said to be a generation ahead of men
in adopting new pronunciations and speech styles. Linguists see
parallels between language and fashion.