What's in store for American
English? Are pronunciations changing?
Is greater mobility causing us to sound more alike than different? Will
computer technologies alter the way we speak? Is the globalization of
English a good thing? Robert MacNeil shares some observations from his
linguistic journey across the United States:
Mass media and language:
- Exposure to mass media is not homogenizing American language or
making us all talk the same.
- Although some localized dialects are dying out--for example in
Appalachia and on the islands off the Carolinas-that is due to
population movement, not the media.
- Regional dialects, accents and pronunciations of American English
remain vigorous. Some are growing more distinctive, not less.
- Changes in pronunciation that linguists do 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" that
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
linguist, Carmen Fought puts it: "People want to talk like the people
they want to be like."
- Due to a huge migration to the South and Southwest and the
national appeal of country music, Southern speech is now the largest
accent group in the United States.
- 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 groups of people.
- White Americans and many blacks consider Black English or street
talk bad or lazy English, even "gibberish." Because many teachers share
that view, language is a major academic obstacle for black children.
- Paradoxically, white America continues to borrow black language
as enthusiastically as ever, (just as 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
that has become more informal in its dress and manners and 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 nation and around the world. Using elements of Valley Girl
and Surfer Dude, more Americans are sounding like Californians by
fronting vowels, so that do sounds like dew, and by 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 the
effect of computers. Around the country, engineers and programmers are
working to make computers speak and understand us. Will that
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 standard leave out?
The role of women:
- One of the most interesting ideas encountered 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.
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