Do You Speak American?
by Robert MacNeil and William Cran. Doubleday, 304 pages, $24.95
If you pronounce the letter r after a vowel -- car instead of cah, water instead of watah -- you are probably an American. Regional accents have exceptions, but the postvocalic / r / , as linguists call it, is characteristic of American speech.
If you worry that a tide of Hispanic immigrants will overwhelm the English language in the United States, your fears are probably exaggerated. Language studies have found that after a couple of generations, people of Latino descent are typically assimilated into the English-speaking culture.
If you are female, you are helping to shape the future of the language, women being more likely than men to adopt new words or usages that reflect changes in social symbolism.
All this you can find in Do You Speak American?, the companion volume to a PBS special of the same title to be broadcast Wednesday. The program is a sequel to The Story of English.
Robert MacNeil and William Cran have produced a book that mirrors the technique of the documentary: a good-humored and informal tone (despite the postvocalic / r / , there is little technical terminology), a handful of salient and easily digestible facts, and a text that relies as much on scene-setting as information about language. It has all the earnestness and virtue, and the superficiality, that one associates with television documentaries. All the same, it highlights interesting phenomena.
It discovers, for example, that decades-old predictions that television would replace regional accents with the standard speech of anchormen were flat wrong. Some regional accents are fading, but others remain strong for reasons of local identity and pride: The Pittsburgh yinz -- the Pennsylvanian y'all -- remains vigorous.
It looks at white culture's fascination with Black English, which is both dismissed by purists as "gibberish" and "a mutant language" and mimicked by young people. It explores research into artificial speech, with the prospect of voice technology emerging from cars and appliances, a development that does not appear to fill the authors with enthusiasm: "God, we thought, you get home after a hard day and fifteen things in the house are talking to you?"
Jesse Sheidlower, who monitors the American language for the Oxford English Dictionary, says that "American English has always been very inclusive of new terms." Beyond that, a point the book hammers home is that Americans like informality as well as novelty. Despite the moaning of alarmists who think that the language is in decline, a look at the way people actually speak and write finds a vigorous language, reflecting the life of a complex and energetic people.
H.L. Mencken, who established much about the characteristics and origins of our distinctive speech in The American Language (and whose writing is more compelling than Mr. MacNeil's and Mr. Cran's), said very much the same thing: "The error of ... viewers with alarm is in assuming that there is enough magic in pedagogy to teach 'correct' English to the plain people. There is, in fact, too little; even the fearsome abracadabra of Teachers College, Columbia, will never suffice for the purpose. The plain people will always make their own language, and the best that grammarians can do is to follow after it, haltingly, and often without much insight. Their lives would be more comfortable if they ceased to repine over it, and instead gave it some hard study. It is very instructive, and not a little amusing."
John McIntyre is The Sun's assistant managing editor for the copy desk, an adjunct instructor in journalism at Loyola College and president of the American Copy Editors Society.