Do You Speak American?

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"Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit"; a documentary on the English language, as spoken in the U.S., is airing on PBS. ON COLUMBUS AVENUE in New York, a young waitress approaches our table and asks, "How are you guys doin'?" My wife and I are old enough to be her grandparents, but we are "you guys" to her. Today, in American English, guys can be guys, girls, or grandmothers. Girls call themselves guys, even dudes. For a while, young women scorned the word girls, but that is cool again, probably because African-American women use it and it can be real cool--even empowering--to whites to borrow black talk, like the word cool. It is empowering to gay men to call themselves queer, once a hated homophobic term, but now used to satirize the whole shifting scene of gender attitudes in the TV reality show, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." As society changes, so does language, and American society has changed enormously in recent decades. Moreover, when new norms are resented or feared, language often is the target of that fear or resentment. How we use the English language became a hot topic during the 1960s, and it remains so today--a charged ingredient in the culture wars, as intensely studied and disputed as any other part of our society. That is appropriate because nothing is more central to our identity and sense of who we are and where we belong. "Aside from a person's physical appearance, the first thing someone will be judged by is how he or she talks," maintains linguist Dennis Baron. Many feel that the growing informality of American life, the retreat from fixed standards, ("the march of casualization," The New York Times recently called it)--in clothing, manners, sexual mores--is reflected in our language and is corrupting it. They see schools lax about teaching grammar and hear nonstandard forms accepted in broadcasting, newspapers, politics, and advertising. They believe the slogan "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should" is so embedded in the national psyche that few Americans would now balk at the use of "like" (instead of "as") because that usage is fast becoming the new standard. They hate such changes in the language and they despair for our culture. Others, however, believe language is thriving--as inventive and vigorous as English was in the time of the Elizabethans--and they see American English as the engine driving what is now a global language. This deep disagreement is one of the issues explored in a survey producer William Cran and I recently completed. The results will appear as a book and a three-hour documentary, "Do You Speak American?" on PBS (Jan. 5, 8-11 p.m.). We address the controversies, issues, anxieties, and assumptions swirling around language today--some highly emotional and political. Why are black and white Americans speaking less and less like each other? We explain. Does Hispanic immigration threaten the English language? We do not think so. Is our exposure to national media wiping out regional differences and causing us all to speak the same? We think not. Is the language really in serious decline? Well, we have quite a debate about that. The people who believe so are known as prescriptivists: those who want us to obey prescribed rules of grammar. They do not mind being called curmudgeons and they alternate between pleasure and despair--pleasure in correcting their fellow citizens; despair that they cannot stop the language from going to hell in our generation. Black and white dialects

Reviewing the speech of Smalley and others, the linguists were taken by how similar it was to the speech of rural whites of that time and place, but how dissimilar to the speech of blacks today. Features characteristic of modern black speech, what linguists call African-American vernacular English such as the invariant "be," as in "they 'be' working," or the deleted copular, leaving out the auxiliary verb in "they working"--were absent. Here are samples of modern speech of African-Americans...
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