Book Review: Do You Speak American?

Do You Speak American, by Robert MacNeil and William Cran

As I have noted before on occasion, my native American accent is Western Pennsylvanian [1], one of the dialects spoken of in this book.  There are some dialects, and this is one of them, that have a mixed sort of prestige.  Locally, and I am a witness of this, there is a great deal of pride in the distinctiveness of the accent of Pittsburgh and surrounding areas, where creek is pronounced crick, where people go to Ver-sails but also Du-kain, where people appreciate Giant Iggle, cheer on the Stillers, and are fond of yinz, as long as you are one of their kind.  This particular work is a descriptivist work on the diversity of American dialects and the ways in which they are viewed by others.  There were times in reading this book where I cheered the authors on for their dedication to understanding a variety of different dialects and their remarkable divergence in the last few decades, and there were times I wanted to slap the writers upside their head for their whiny left-wing political worldview in matters of language.  In short, this was a book that I had strongly ambivalent feelings about.

In terms of its structure and contents, this particular book is a little over 200 pages and is divided topically into eight chapters.  The first chapter deals with the language wars, which the authors criticize for the way that some dialects are stigmatized.  The authors then discuss the changing dialects of the United States based on their origins in different parts of England, a discussion that wouldn’t be out of place in books about population migrations.  The third chapter looks at the elements of building a standard American English form based on some of the distinctive qualities of a wide variety of dialects.  The fifth chapter looks at the politically charged issue of Hispanic immigration and determines that there is a great deal of assimilation according to past models that has been disguised in large part by the continual nature of that immigration.  The sixth chapter looks at how Black English has been simultaneously bad-mouthed and culturally appropriated in part because of its ‘forbidden’ and ‘exotic’ nature.  The seventh chapter looks at the changing nature of contemporary American English, including the great shift of vowel and consonant sounding in different dialects, and the book ends with an interesting discussion of the difficulties computers have in recognizing distinct accents at present and the implications of dialect standardization based on communicating with computers.

One of the more irritating assumptions this book makes is that it is a bad thing to enforce some sort of common dialect on an entire population or the sake of everyone being able to understand everyone else, regardless of background or one’s native dialect.  The writers sniff that it is too difficult for people to learn prestige dialects simply in order for a certain uniformity to exist among all who wish to be viewed as cultured people within the United States.  At the same time, though, the authors praise those who are able to successfully engage in code-switching, where they are able to use multiple dialects to their own social advantage depending on where they are, which over the course of my own life has been a simple survival skill in the face of fairly large social liabilities.  Most European young people who have any remote pretensions towards being intelligent learn three or four languages well enough to communicate through their schooling.  It should not be too much to demand knowledge of a common American dialect in addition to a foreign language from any student who wishes to engage in an honorable professional life.  We ought to be aware that we are making a demand, but there are prices to living in a free republic, and one of those is encouraging unity among diversity, rather than simply praising diversity for its own sake without anything to counter those centrifugal forces.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: Do You Speak American?

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Language Matters | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: By Hook Or By Crook | Edge Induced Cohesion

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