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?”
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.
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.
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:
The following questions identify issues to keep in mind as you watch the program. They can also guide group discussion.
Does this example (from the book of Genesis in the Bible) suggest that English has deteriorated over time?
On angynne gescēop God heofonan and eorðan.
‘In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.’
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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Curricular materials for using Do You Speak American? in high school and college classes are available in this section of our Web site.
These definitions are useful for viewing Do You Speak American?
Accent A common
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
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
Back to list
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
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
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.
Back to list
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
study of language focusing on
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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A group of people who
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
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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
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.
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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Cotterill, Janet. Language and Power in Court: A
Linguistic Analysis of the O.J. Simpson Trial. New York: Palgrave
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:
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
the English language (3rd ed.), New York: Harcourt, Brace,
Jovanovich, 1982. 132.
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.
William and Flora Hewlett
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