about the broadcast

About the Broadcast

Why is the English spoken by Maine lobstermen so different from that spoken by cowboys in Texas?
Does Spanish pose a threat to English as the dominant language in America? And what on earth do yins, wickety wack, ayuh, catty whompus, and stomping it clean mean? Robert MacNeil travels cross-country to answer these questions and examine the dynamic state of American English - a language rich with regional variety, strong global impact and cultural controversy.

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Broadcast Premiere: Wednesday,
5th, from 8-11 p.m. on PBS

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Robert MacNeil's Route

dysa route across the united states
videoVideo Introduction

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 are just 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 themselves.
  • 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 their "rs."

African-American English:

  • Despite decades of progress in civil rights, and the rise of a large black middle class, inner city African-Americans talk less like white 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 correctness.

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.

Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett


Rosalind P.

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Corporation of New York