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Viewer's Guide

New York, 2005 introductory sequence epsiode 1closed caption logo

Dear Viewer,

Since moving to the United States over forty  years ago, I began to speak more like Americans.

Words, accents, language have always fascinated me.

So it was thrilling twenty years ago to work on a TV series about the English language.

In our television series The Story of English we traced the origins of our language and how it spread around the world. That was in the 1980’s. I’m curious to see how the language has moved on since then. One thing is clear: American English has become the dominant form of the language. What answers do you get today when you ask, “Do you speak American?”


Robert MacNeil


Table of Contents

Program Description

In the three-part series Do You Speak American?, host Robert MacNeil takes viewers on a journey through the United States, exploring how the language we use can define us, unite us, or separate us. The title highlights a crucial idea raised throughout the documentary: What does it mean to “speak American?”  To many, the most obvious answer is that speaking American means speaking English. As revealed in the documentary, however, the answer is much more complex. Not all Americans speak English, and those who do speak English do not speak all speak the same version. On the contrary, the English used in the United States differs from region to region, among ethnic and other social groups, and even by age and gender. As MacNeil discovers, many people shift from one version of English to another depending on the person they are speaking to and where they are. In addition, there are more than 2 million people in the United States who do not speak English at all.

To explore the question of what it means to speak American, MacNeil travels down the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Philadelphia, where he turns west into Pennsylvania and Ohio. From there, he heads south through Kentucky and Tennessee to Mississippi and into Louisiana and Texas. His journey then takes him to the West Coast and the varieties of English spoken around Los Angeles. The series ends with a look at high tech language research in Palo Alto, California, and offers a glimpse into the future with information about voice and computer technology at Microsoft headquarters in Washington State. At several points along the journey, MacNeil talks to people about the language they use and what it means in their lives. He has conversations with musicians, politicians, television and radio personalities, journalists, movie producers, surfers, military personnel, and researchers. He also elicits the help of several sociolinguists—researchers engaged in the scientific study of language in its social context—who provide expert observations on language as a social phenomenon.

Viewing language from such a broad perspective reveals that speaking American means different things to different people and that, because of political and social issues surrounding language, there is no consensus on what speaking American is or should be. In fact, as we learn in this series, the United States has no official language, although numerous attempts to implement one have been made throughout the country’s history.

For some, speaking American means adhering to a single “correct” way of using English that guards against onslaughts on the language from various sources. For many who hold this view, English should be spoken in a way that reflects the way it is written and with pronunciations that sound “neutral.” For others, the style of English they speak is a way of identifying with home, peers, or a certain way of life. For these people, it’s not a matter of speaking English the “right way” but of speaking in a way that makes them comfortable in their world and that accurately projects their identity. Language standards vary according to the groups that speakers identify with. They also vary from place to place; compare, for example, Standard British English versus Standard American English. Standards also change over time, so it can be quite difficult to determine exactly what “correct English” might be.

Do You Speak American? demonstrates that the way we speak is intrinsically tied to a number of complex factors, including ethnicity, political climate, socioeconomic status, historical events, and individual personality. The series offers a rare opportunity for viewers to hear and discuss how language shapes us as individuals, as communities, and as a nation.

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Recommended Uses of Do You Speak American?

This program will be of interest to all language users, especially to those who have a special stake in language—whether personal or professional—including teachers, policy makers, politicians, community groups, and families. It provides a rare view into the social motivations behind language use, with thought-provoking commentary on why we talk the way we do and how we build our identities through language. The program offers a good basis for discussion in social groups, special interest groups, and book clubs. Ideas for discussion are presented in this guide.

Do You Speak American? is closed captioning for the hearing impaired.

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Key Issues

Do You Speak American? investigates language in the Unites States from a range of perspectives. These are some of the topics that are taken up in the series:

  • African American English (also called African American Vernacular English)
  • Chicano English
  • Descriptivism
  • Grammar
  • Language and education
  • Language change
  • Language prejudice
  • Language standards
  • Mainstream English
  • Prescriptivism
  • Pronunciation (i.e., accent)
  • Regional speech varieties
  • Slang
  • Social speech varieties
  • Speech community
  • Style shifting
  • Vocabulary
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Summary of Programs

Episode 1

  • Nova Scotia to Maine
    MacNeil discusses the threats to both lobstering and the local dialect with a fisherman in South Freeport, Maine.
  • Maine to Massachusetts
    While filling his “cah” with gas, MacNeil discusses the local r-less dialect.
  • Massachusetts to New York City
    MacNeil stops at the Priscilla Beach Theatre, where he made his first foray into acting in the United States. To become an actor, he admits, he had to learn to suppress his native Nova Scotian accent. In New York City, viewers meet two people, both very much engaged in language, who have diametrically opposing views: Dr. John Simon, New York theatre critic, believes that English is “going to the dogs,” whereas Dr. Jesse Sheidlower, Oxford English Dictionary editor, sees changes in English as a healthy, expected phenomenon for any language. In a New York City record store, MacNeil interviews Dr. CeCe Cutler, a researcher who studies urban speech and its adoption by suburban teenagers. He visits an internet café where teenagers describe the language they use to write instant messages and the influence of spoken language of on this medium. The final stop in New York City is Spanish Harlem, where MacNeil orders a shaved ice from a woman who says she has spoken nothing but Spanish for the entire 19 years she has lived in the United States.
  • New York City to Pennsylvania
    MacNeil meets Dr. William Labov, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, who talks about historical change in American English. On the train from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, viewers are introduced to Dr. Dennis Preston, a linguist who asks people on the train to talk about where so-called correct American English is spoken. In Pittsburgh, another linguist, Dr. Barbara Johnstone, tells MacNeil how the local dialect was influenced by immigrants, particularly the Scots-Irish, and how that dialect remains an important part of personal identity for Pittsburgh natives. Together, Johnstone and MacNeil receive a lesson in Pittsburghese from a local souvenir salesman.
  • Pennsylvania to Ohio
    In Ohio, MacNeil dials up a grammar hotline, a service dedicated to the proper use of English. An editor for The Columbus Dispatch cites several words that he feels are losing their proper meanings. With a focus on changes in language, the segment returns to Labov’s office, where MacNeil learns about research findings on the changing pronunciation of vowel sounds in American cities around the Great Lakes.
  • Ohio to Michigan
    MacNeil meets Dr. John Baugh in Detroit. Baugh, a researcher at Stanford University, conducts studies on how speakers of African American English and Hispanic English are discriminated against when they inquire about housing. Baugh and MacNeil visit the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, where Baugh explains that certain features of the African American English speech variety were brought to the United States along with slavery. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, MacNeil visits a school and meets key participants from the historic 1979 court case Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School District Board, which resulted in teachers learning about African American English so that they could take the structure of that dialect into account in teaching children. MacNeil ends his visit to Detroit—and this episode—by attending a hip-hop performance at a Detroit nightclub where the group Athletic Mic League describe in their own language their music and their performance.
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Episode 2

  • Kentucky to Tennessee, Tennessee to Mississippi
    This episode begins on a riverboat on the Ohio River, the political border between North and South. MacNeil is joined on the riverboat by Dr. Walt Wolfram, a linguist at North Carolina State University. Together they visit Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, where a fiddler shares both his music and his stories about the local language. From there, MacNeil joins a trucker named Spanky on a drive through the South to Nashville, Tennessee. There they watch a country music performance by Cody James. Although the Southern dialect is not native to either of them, Spanky and James both say they speak it because it seems to suit their lifestyles. Linguist Dr. John Fought asserts that Southern is the fastest-growing variety of English in the United States. In an Oxford, Mississippi, bookstore, MacNeil comments on the Southern writers Eudora Welty and William Faulkner and plays a recording of Welty reading from one of her books. MacNeil then speaks with Jeff Foxworthy, a comedian whose act makes light of Southern speech. Foxworthy points out that people often make judgments about how intelligent a person is based on the way he or she speaks.
  • Mississippi to Louisiana
    In Mamou, Louisiana, MacNeil listens to patrons in a local café speaking Cajun French before heading across the street to Fred’s Lounge, where local Cajun bands and the proprietor, Tante Sue, entertain on Saturday mornings.
  • Louisiana to Texas
    MacNeil spends some time with cowhands at the Bar-J ranch in East Texas, discussing the influence of Spanish on the English spoken in the region, particularly the ranching vocabulary. The ranch owner, who is not a native Texan, hosts a Texas-style chuck wagon cookout for MacNeil and the ranch hands. A cowboy poet recites a poem illustrating Texas humor. MacNeil pushes on to Springville, Texas, where he meets two linguists, Dr. Patricia Cukor-Avila and Dr. Guy Bailey, who have participated in a 17-year investigation of the language of descendants of slaves in the area. They talk to Willy, one of those whose speech they have studied. From Springville, MacNeil drives on to the home of Kinky Freedman, a writer who moved to Texas and who writes books about Texas and Texas speech. To hear a wide variety of Texas speech in one place, MacNeil visits the state legislature in Austin. While at the state capitol, he meets with newspaper columnist Molly Ivins. A Texas native, she reflects on the features of “true” Texan speech. From Austin, MacNeil drives south to Laredo, a U.S.-Mexico border town. He meets Allan Wall, who teaches English in Mexico. At The Laredo Morning Times, MacNeil meets editor Robert Garcia, who discusses the need to reach audiences in both English and Spanish. MacNeil visits another border town, El Cenizo, which made national headlines in 1999 when it declared Spanish its official language. The episode concludes with a trek near the Rio Grande River with border patrol officers, whom MacNeil joins in the apprehension of illegal immigrants.
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Episode 3

  • Los Angeles to San Francisco, California
    In Los Angeles, MacNeil meets Patricia Lopez, video jockey (VJ) for the LATV show Mex 2 the Max. She talks to MacNeil about being bilingual in Spanish and English and about the importance of being able to speak Spanish. Linguist Dr. Carmen Fought describes Chicano English, a speech variety spoken in Los Angeles and some other places with Hispanic populations. Together, Fought and MacNeil visit a Los Angeles park where they listen to two boys speaking Chicano English. While in Los Angeles, MacNeil joins DJ Steve Harvey at his radio show. Harvey, a speaker of African American English, discusses how speakers adapt to different audiences and how important African American English is to him in his work. At Public School (P.S.) 100 in the Watts district of Los Angeles, elementary school children who speak non-mainstream varieties of English at home are taught how to translate their home language into mainstream English. From there, MacNeil moves on to Hollywood, whose entertainment industry is responsible for portraying American English in films that people will watch around the world. Writer and director Amy Heckerling helped popularize Valley Girl speech with her film Clueless. MacNeil talks with Heckerling about how she represents that speech variety in her films. He also interviews Winnie Holzman, producer and writer of the television series My So-Called Life. To see whether California teenagers actually talk the way they are depicted in film and on television, MacNeil meets with a group of high school students from Irvine. From Fought, he learns about another speech variety that originated among young people in California, “Surfer Dude,” so he heads up the coast to surfing territory. There he meets with George, a surfer who drives him to favorite surfing spots, describing the scenes in Surfer Dude speech. The surfing foray prompts MacNeil to meet with two other people who speak sports-related speech varieties, a skateboarder and a snowboarder. From there, he travels to a military base, where he discusses with Marines the changes in speech since women and men enlistees began to work and live side by side. In San Francisco, MacNeil delves a bit farther into issues of language and gender. He talks with former mayoral candidate Tom Amiano, who is gay. With a group of gay and lesbian San Franciscans, MacNeil comments on the changing attitudes toward words associated with homosexuality. He then meets Stanford University researcher Dr. Cliff Nass, whose studies indicate that voices and faces must match in voice technology applications in order for us to trust them. Nass’s research informs decisions for voice-automated products such as a new BMW sedan, which MacNeil test-drives while Nass explains why BMW chose the voice it did for the car. Nass demonstrates the effect of mismatched voices and faces, including pairing MacNeil’s face with a different dialect.
  • California to Washington
    MacNeil pursues the voice technology theme at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington. XD Huang, a Microsoft researcher, describes the style of English that computers are programmed to understand. Before his flight from Seattle, MacNeil telephones the airline’s automated service. He wonders whether technology will demand that one day we all speak like the automated voice he hears over the telephone.
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Roadmap for Viewing

The following questions identify issues to keep in mind as you watch the program. They can also guide group discussion.

Episode 1

  1. Robert MacNeil says, “Americans consider themselves egalitarian and un-snobbish about accents, but they’re full of notions about how not to speak.” Do you agree that Americans are opinionated when it comes to language? What might be some examples of this? Has anyone ever instructed you to change your speech? Do you think that person was right to correct you?
  2. MacNeil describes English in New York City as “a language that fuels the great publishing empires. From the city that never sleeps—24/7, on TV, cable, radio, electronic media—come the words and ideas that define American culture and market it to the world. You can make a case that New York City is now the global capital of the English language.” Do you agree? How do you feel about English being used around the globe? For what reasons would people use English rather than another language?
    1. People who make a living in language-related professions are often divided into two camps that MacNeil refers to as prescriptivists and descriptivists. Language teachers, editors, and other people whose job it is to work with what they consider correct English are likely to take a prescriptivist stance. The linguists and social worker you see in Episode 1 can be considered descriptivists because they are interested in how language is really used rather than prescribing how to use it. New York Magazine theatre critic John Simon and Oxford English Dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower show themselves to be on opposite sides of this language debate. How can you tell which of the two is a prescriptivist and which is a descriptivist? In general, are you more of a prescriptivist or a descriptivist? As you continue to view the series, keep this dichotomy in mind and consider which camp each of the people featured falls into.
    2. John Simon claims that in his experience “language can always disintegrate further,” and “there is no bottom.” Do you believe that the English language is disintegrating? If so, what measures would you propose to save English? Do you agree that language can always get worse? What would be the outcome if English continued to disintegrate? What would the language be like then?
    3. Did you know that the English of 1000 years ago was so different from today’s English that we can’t read it today without translation? Here’s a small sample of what it was like (Pyles & Algeo, 1982).

      On angynne gescēop God heofonan and eorðan.

      ‘In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.’

      Does this example (from the book of Genesis in the Bible) suggest that English has deteriorated over time?
  3. Dr. Cutler claims that White male teens “who are sort of afraid of women or young women and are in the process of trying to figure out how it is that one deals with them” are often attracted to “hard core rappers” because these rappers illustrate a type of “masculinity that doesn't perhaps exist in the safe White suburbs.” What assumptions about gender identity and gender roles underlie this claim? What is meant by “types of masculinity”? Is there more than one type, and, if so, what types are there? What forms of masculinity are available in White suburbs that aren’t available to “hard core rappers”? Do girls ever engage in dialect crossing as Dr. Cutler describes it? Why or why not? If possible, provide examples of people you know who cross dialects.
  4. What is your language heritage? Did you or any of your ancestors learn English as a second language as a result of being in America? If so, what has happened to the other language(s) your family originally spoke?
  5. Linguist Dennis Preston conducts research about language ideology—what people think about different regional varieties of English. In the first episode, he asks people on a train to draw on maps where they think the best and worst American English is spoken. Where do you think good American English is spoken? Where is the worst spoken? Explain.
  6. Kirk Arnott, an editor at The Columbus Dispatch, lists several words that he says are often used incorrectly in today’s English: for example, nonplussed, importantly, and bemused. Is it important that people like Arnott monitor the use of words? Do you use any of these words yourself? If so, how do you use them?
  7. There is a popular belief that Americans are sounding more like each other all the time–that is, that variations in language are being lost because of the influence of mainstream media. However, Dr. William Labov and others in the series present evidence that certain aspects of language, such as pronunciation, are becoming less similar across different groups, depending on such factors as geographic region. Does this surprise you? If Labov is right, what might be some reasons that the English used in mass media does not seem to have an influence on individual speech?
  8. Dr. John Baugh does research on what is called language profiling, or how people are judged according to how they speak. Are you surprised that people who speak African American or Chicano English are treated differently than mainstream English speakers over the telephone? Do you think it is possible to tell people’s ethnicity and socioeconomic status based only on how they talk?
  9. Baugh says, “It’s often assumed by Blacks as well as Whites that African Americans speak bad or lazy English. In fact, Black English has roots as deep and a grammar as consistent as Scottish, Irish, or any other of the Englishes spoken around the world.” What is Baugh referring to when he says “roots as deep and a grammar as consistent as . . . any other of the Englishes”?
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Roadmap for Viewing

Episode 2

  1. Spanky and Cody James both have adopted a Southern style of speaking, although it is not a native speech variety for them. Ranch owner Linda Blackburn has also taken on the local style of speaking since moving to Texas. What might have motivated these people to change the way they talk? Do you know anyone who has done this, or have you done it yourself? Do you ever notice that you speak differently depending on where you are and with whom you are speaking? Listen carefully to the way Dr. Guy Bailey sounds when he speaks with MacNeil and when he speaks with Willy. What differences do you notice in the way he talks to the two men? Why do you think he changes his speech, and do you think he himself is aware of it?
  2. Does it seem to you that the English varieties associated with Whites and African Americans in the United States are becoming more different from one another? Do you agree with MacNeil’s statement that “More separate languages mean more separate peoples”? To what extent do the multiple varieties of English spoken in America divide groups of people? Do separate languages divide people in America? What about in other countries?
  3. Newspaper columnist Molly Ivins describes the English used in Texas. What distinctive characteristics does English have in your region? Why do you think people in your region speak the way they do?
  4. Allan Wall expresses the opinion that people who live in the United States should all speak English, and he believes that English should be made the official language of the United States. Do you think the United States needs to make English its official language? What would this accomplish? Who might benefit from such a policy? What does it mean to have an official language?
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Roadmap for Viewing

Episode 3

  1. The linguist Dr. Carmen Fought says that Chicano English is a distinct speech variety. Many speakers of Chicano English, she says, don’t even know Spanish. She expresses the view that Spanish is in danger of disappearing in the United States but that English is not threatened. Compare this point of view to that of Allan Wall. Do you think Latino people in the United States should maintain their Spanish and also learn to speak English? What is the value for people in the United States of speaking more than one language?
  2. At P.S. 100 in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, students are taught how to translate from their home language into mainstream English. Does this seem to be a good way of teaching mainstream English? Why or why not? Noma LeMoine, Director of the Los Angeles Unified School District's Academic English Master Program, says,“Our task is to help move [students] toward mastery of the language of school in its oral and written form, but to do that in a way where they are not devalued or where they feel denigrated in any way by virtue of their cultural and linguistic differences. Because when you begin to devalue youngsters and make them feel that who they are doesn’t count, then we turn them off from education.” Do you agree with her? Do you expect that their program will be successful “in keeping students interested in education and bolstering their self-esteem”?
    1. The third episode talks about young people as linguistic trendsetters. Listen to the way that teenagers speak in the cafeteria in Irvine. Do you think that the way they speak English will make it into a variety of settings, such as offices or newscasts?
    2. Do you find any of the words these teens use to be offensive? If so, why? What associations do the words call to mind? Do you think the words have the same associations for these teens? Is it possible for a word to lose old meanings and take on new ones?
  3. With the surfer George, MacNeil watches footage from The Story of English. George says that the Surf Punks featured in that program talk much like surfers talk today. Why do you think their speech variety has not spread into everyday American speech? Listen to the speech of Steve the skateboarder and Jake the snowboarder. Do you think the average American will one day sound like these men? Do you think these men would continue to use this speech variety in later life, for example in a political career? Do you think they use this variety in all situations today?
  4. One of the participants in San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade says, “If we can use the word queer so many times that it just becomes a normal word in our language without any consequence, then I think we [gays and lesbians] see ourselves as being more empowered. So it sort of proves the point that you can change the meaning of words.” Do you agree? Is this an example of a word changing meaning?
    1. Stanford researcher Dr. Cliff Nass works with voice technology, including matching voice and gender to specific products. He tells MacNeil that the original version of the BMW sedan featured a female voice but that Germans reacted negatively to it. Was this reaction based on the voice alone or on other factors?
    2. Does it seem to you that certain objects, like cars, are male or female? What characteristics would make a product masculine or feminine? Can you think of people you know who don’t show the typical characteristics of women and men, including typical qualities of female or male speech? Do you have the typical speech characteristics of your gender?
  5. Nass says that humans are “voice activated,” that “when the brain hears something that sounds even remotely like human speech, we bring to bear all the rules and expectations that we do when dealing with other people.” Do you agree? Have you ever encountered a situation in which someone’s voice didn’t seem to match their appearance? What physical characteristics do you associate with certain voice qualities?
  6. XD Huang says that people who speak mainstream English are more likely to have success interfacing with computerized voice recognition systems. What does this say about the expected audience for such features? Have you had any difficulty getting a voice recognition system to understand you? If so, why do you think this happened?
  7. 9. Who speaks American? Do you? Have your opinions about language in the United States changed as you watched the series?
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Education Curriculum

Curricular materials for using Do You Speak American? in high school and college classes are available in this section of our Web site.

Glossary of Terms

These definitions are useful for viewing Do You Speak American?

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Accent A common way of referring to the sounds of speech. Accent can refer to distinctive characteristics of the way a group of people speak their native language or the way people speak a second language shaded with characteristics of their first. In popular usage, this term often has a negative connotation. Linguists use the term language variety to refer to a group’s ways of speaking.  Back to list

African American English (AAE); also called African American Vernacular English (AAVE) Terms used by linguists to refer to a language variety spoken by many African Americans. This variety is often a target for prejudice and ignorance, but it has also been one of the most extensively studied and discussed varieties of American English. Many linguists studying the origins of AAE consider that the differences between this and other varieties of American English are due to its origins as a creole language formed during the time of slavery. Back to list

Bidialectalism/bilingualism  The ability to speak two dialects or two languages. Most of the people in the world speak more than one language; the United States is somewhat rare in that many citizens speak only English. Bidialectalismcan be promoted by helping students learn the contrasts between vernacular language varieties and standard varieties of a language. Back to list

Cajun  The variety of French brought to Louisiana in 1765 by the Acadians, or Cajuns, when they were deported from the Canadian settlement of Acadia (now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick). Originally of French descent, these people spoke a variety of French that was different from the French spoken in France. Because Cajuns tended to live in isolation, their language variety survives today. Cajun English is the variety of English spoken by Cajuns. It is heavily influenced by French vocabulary and pronunciation. Back to list

Chicano English  A variety of English spoken by many people of Hispanic descent in the Southwestern United States and California. It differs in systematic ways from Standard American English. Chicano English is not just English spoken by people who speak Spanish as a native language and who are still acquiring English. Not all speakers of Chicano English speak Spanish. Back to list

Codeswitching Changing from one language to another when speaking. Codeswitching takes place all over the world in language contact situations, occurring whenever there are groups of people who speak the same two (or more) languages (for example, French and English in Canada or French and German in Switzerland). Codeswitching requires a high level of proficiency in the grammar and vocabulary of both languages. In the United States, “Spanglish” is a popular name for the process of moving back and forth between Spanish and English; speakers of Spanglish display a great deal of knowledge of the structure of both languages, knowing, for example, that you can say “My mother makes tamales verdes” but that you would never say “My mother makes verdes tamales.” Back to list

Copula absence bsence of particular forms of the verb to be. In AAE, as well as in varieties of English spoken in the South, it is common to delete the copula, resulting in sentences like She nice and You the boss. Back to list

Creole language  A language that develops when a pidgin language begins to be learned as a native language. Pidgins arise from sustained communication in situations of contact between speakers of different languages. Creoles tend to have more complex grammars and vocabularies than pidgins. Haitian Creole, spoken in Haiti, and Gullah, spoken on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia are examples of creole languages. Back to list

Crossing  Changing one’s expected or native way of speaking to use a dialect or dialect features that are associated with another social group. Such features are usually easily recognizable as belonging to the other group and have particular social meaning; for example, White male adolescent boys may use features of AAE to signal participation in hip-hop culture. Back to list

Descriptivism The objective description of the way people actually speak without judgment about how they “should” speak. Most sociolinguists tend to be descriptivists in that they wish to understand how people actually use language in everyday interaction. Contrast with prescriptivism.  Back to list

Dialect   Any language variety associated with a particular region or social group. As used by linguists, the term dialect involves no judgment of the value of a particular language variety. No variety is superior to any other. When used by the general public, this term often refers to a language variety that is considered inferior to the standard or mainstream variety. Back to list

Ebonics  A term coined in 1973, combining the words ebony (black) and phonics (sounds), to refer to the distinctive speech of African Americans. The term was not commonly used by the public until 1996, when the school board in Oakland, California, recognized Ebonicsas the primary language of its African American students, inciting a very public controversy. See African American English.
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Eye dialect The practice of spelling words to resemble the way they are pronounced, often to represent nonstandard dialects (e.g., them thar hills) or informal speech (e.g., gonna). This practice is often used by authors to write dialog, as Mark Twain did to depict Huck Finn’s speech. Back to list

Grammar How a language is structured. Although grammar is popularly used to refer to the language forms and constructions that are considered to be correct, linguists use this term to refer to the knowledge that native speakers implicitly have about the structure of their own language, for example how to arrange words into sentences. Back to list

Gullah (Also called Geechee) A creole language spoken by a small number of African Americans in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Because these speakers have been isolated from the rest of the United States, many of the distinctive features of the language have been preserved. Although closely related to other creole languages spoken in the Caribbean, Gullah is the only English-based creole spoken in the United States. Some linguists believe that Gullah is a remnant of a creole that was once widely used by African Americans in the United States, which eventually became African American English. Back to list

Habitual be Use of the verb be without inflection to refer to an ongoing state or repeated activity. The distinction between habitual and nonhabitual activities is captured in the verb system of African American English and other language varieties, but Standard American English expresses habitual meanings by adding an adverb. The AAE sentence The coffee be cold could be expressed in Standard English as The coffee is generally cold. The coffee be cold does not mean that the coffee is cold right now. Back to list

Jargon The specialized words or vocabulary used by people within a particular group. Doctors and engineers are known for having specialized vocabularies particular to their professions, but groups such as teenagers also have their own jargon that identifies them and helps to reinforce boundaries between them and other groups. See slang. Back to list

Language change Alteration over time in any component of a language, such as pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary. Although often perceived by the general population as inherently bad, language changeoccurs in any language that is in use by a speech community; a language that does not exhibit change is a dead language (for example, Latin). Back to list

Language death The disappearance of a language or language variety. A language dies when children no longer acquire it as a first language and the last speakers of the language die. Many American Indian languages are dead or dying because few native speakers remain. Back to list

Language prejudice Negative value judgments made about a person based on the way he or she speaks, usually directed toward a speaker of a vernacular dialect.
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Language prestige  Positive value placed upon a particular language or features of a language. At the most general level, a language or language variety may be considered prestigious because it is spoken by those who are in power and because it is considered to be correct by prescriptivists. Depending on the social situation, however, it may be more prestigious to use features that are not prescriptively correct but that have prestige for a certain group, such as popular vocabulary terms used by a given group of teenagers. See language prejudice. Back to list

Language profiling Making decisions about people based on the variety of language they speak. Language profiling is most prevalent in people in gatekeeping positions: that is, people in positions of power who make decisions about employment, immigration, living arrangements, and so forth. This process is very closely related to racial and economic profiling. Back to list

Mainstream (Standard) American English The variety of English spoken in the United States that is considered by most Americans to seem right. In the United States, the Midland (i.e., Midwest) area is most often pointed to as the location where mainstream Englishis spoken. Mainstream or Standard English is the language variety that is taught in school. It is considered necessary for participation and success in American society. Back to list

Northern Cities Vowel Shift A change currently taking place in the vowel sounds in United States cities like Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit. People who live in these areas and who participate in this shift might pronounce the word bag in a way that sounds like the word beg. This leads to what is known as a “chain shift” where one vowel change causes other vowels to be pronounced differently so as to keep the vowels distinct. Back to list

Pidgin language language that arises when speakers of different languages come into contact (typically in trade situations), have no language in common, and have an immediate need to communicate. Features of pidgin languages include a simplified grammar and a relatively small vocabulary. An important and defining characteristic is that pidgin languages have no native speakers. Tok Pisin, spoken in Papua New Guinea, is an example of a pidgin language. In some areas of the country, Tok Pisin has been creolized. See creole language. Back to list

Prescriptivism The view that there is a right and a wrong way to speak a language and that there are certain correct forms that should be used. Contrast with descriptivism. Back to list

Quotative “like” Using forms of the verb to be and the word like to mean said or asked: for example, She’s like, “That’s so rude!” This form is becoming a common way of introducing a quote in American English. The rapid spread of this form has been noted by many linguists, although it is popularly classified as a feature of California speech. Back to list

Regional speech varieties Varieties of a language that exist in different geographical areas, often referred to by the general population as an accent. Features that distinguish a regional variety can include pronunciation, grammatical structures, vocabulary, and pitch. Major regional speech varieties in the United States include the Northeast, Midlands, and Coastal Southern varieties. Back to list

Register Specialized use of a language for a defined situation or occasion. A common example is the baby talk register. This is a very specialized style that involves high pitch and particular vocabulary items. It is used when talking to a baby, an animal, or sometimes a significant other, but it would probably be considered inappropriate in other contexts. Back to list

R-lessness The absence or reduction of the /r/sound in words such as car, park, or beard. R-lessness occurs only when an /r/ sound occurs after a vowel and not before another vowel. Thus cah by the garage will be pronounced without an /r/, but car in the garage will be pronounced with an /r/. In the United States, r-lessness is present in the Southern and New England speech varieties. Back to list

Slang Words or expressions typically used in informal communication. Slang words often don’t last for a long time, but some endure (e.g., cool). Slang is usually equated with young people, but older speakers use slang too. See jargon.
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Social speech varieties Language varieties associated with social factors, such as socioeconomic class, age, ethnic background, or sexual orientation. Social speech varieties can vary within geographical regions. Back to list

Socioeconomic class Status based on social and economic characteristics such as income, job, level of education, and other factors. Speech patterns are often associated with social and economic class. Back to list

Sociolinguistics The study of language focusing on the relationship between society and language; the study of language as it is used in social context. Sociolinguistics has close connections with anthropology, sociology, and psychology.
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Speech community  A group of people who share language characteristics and ways of speaking. They may be located close to one another geographically, or they may share social characteristics such as age, gender, or socioeconomic class. The notion of speech community is useful for studying how nonlinguistic features such as geographical location and socioeconomic status are related to language use.
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Style shifting Adjusting or changing from one style of speech to another. Style shifts are largely automatic or unconscious reactions to a situation, an audience, or a topic, but they may be deliberate. Style shifting always occurs within the same language, as opposed to codeswitching, which involves changing between different languages. Back to list

Vocabulary  The words of a language. Differences in vocabulary are among the most noticeable contrasts between language varieties. Language change involving vocabulary items can occur more quickly than changes in grammatical structure or the sounds of a language. Back to list


If you want to find out more about language and its study, you may want to consult these resources:

www.americandialect.org/woty.html The Web site for the American Dialect Society shows the results of the organization’s annual word(s) of the year vote. The top choice for 2003 was metrosexual.

www.cal.org The Web site of the Center for Applied Linguistics features information about Ebonics, language in education, bilingualism, and language learning.

www.ling.upenn.edu/phono_atlas/home.html This Web site, created and maintained by linguist  Dr. William Labov and his associates, enables viewers to hear actual speech samples from across the United States, including examples of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.

www.lsadc.org The Web site of the Linguistic Society of America offers information about linguistics—the scientific study of language—and answers to frequently asked questions about language.

www.ncsu.edu/linguistics The Web site of the North Carolina Language and Life Project, maintained by linguist Dr. Walt Wolfram, offers pictures and speech samples from people in different areas of North Carolina and vignettes from video documentaries about language and life in The Old North State.
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Baugh, John.  Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
This book presents a thorough examination of the social and educational issues involved in the Ebonics controversy of the late 1990s, as well as a first-person perspective on the history and the present state of African American English.

Cotterill, Janet.  Language and Power in Court: A Linguistic Analysis of the O.J. Simpson Trial. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

The author, a linguist, investigates from a social scientific point of view the interaction of language and power in this high profile event.

Finegan, Edward, & Rickford, John R.  Language in the U.S.A. New York:Cambridge University Press,  2004.

This college-level textbook is divided into three sections: American English, Other Language Varieties, and The Sociolinguistic Situation in the U.S.A.

Eckert, Penelope, & McConnell-Ginet, Sally.  Language and Gender. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

This book offers an insightful look into the relationships among gender, sex, and language.

Lippi-Green, Rosina. English With an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. London/New York: Routledge, 1997.

Attitudes toward accents are institutionalized in courts and perpetuated in the media and at work. Those whose accents are not considered prestigious may suffer discrimination.

Metcalf, Allan.. Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

The executive secretary of the American Dialect Society gives an often humorous account about which new words have staying power, and why.

Niedzielski, Nancy A., & Preston, Dennis R. Folk Linguistics. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003.

This book is one of the first to merge what people in the general population uphold as linguistic truths and what linguists believe about language.

Nunberg, Geoffrey. Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Controversial Times. New York: PublicAffairs, 2004.

This book is not a diatribe on presidential pronunciation but rather an exploration of language use in public life.

Pyles, T., & Algeo, J.  The origins and development of the English language (3rd ed.), New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982. 132.

Rickford, John R., & Rickford, Russell J . Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. New York: John Wiley, 2000.

This engaging and comprehensive account of Black English (also known as African American English or AAE) includes discussions of the artistic forms associated with AAE, pronunciation and grammatical patterns, the history of AAE, AAE and education, and language and identity. This is a must-read for anyone interested in getting the real story on African American English—what it is, what it isn’t, and how it got to be the way it is.

Smitherman, Geneva.  Talkin That Talk: African American Language and Culture. London/New York: Routledge, 2000/

This volume brings together Smitherman’s writings on the interrelationship among language, education, and culture in African America.

Trudgill, Peter.  Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society. Fourth Edition. East Rutherford, NJ: Penguin Books, 2001.

This new edition of a classic text explores how the way we talk is influenced by our class, sex, and ethnic background, and how it affects the way we are perceived by others.

Wardaugh, Ronald.  An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Fourth Edition. Oxford, UK, and Malden, MA:Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

Wardaugh’s book, considered a classic, offers an accessible and comprehensive introduction to sociolinguistics.

Wolfram, Walt, & Schilling-Estes, Natalie.  American English: Dialects and Variation. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

Intended for readers with little or no background in linguistic science, this college-level textbook  includes chapters on the range of regional, social, and ethnic variation in American English; language and gender; style shifting; the history of English in America; and the general nature of language variation.
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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