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Transcript

Do you Speak American?

Robert MacNeil
Author and Former Co-anchor of PBS' the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour
Thursday, January 13, 2005; 11:00 AM

For his newest book, "Do you Speak American?," co-author and former co-anchor of PBS' the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour Robert MacNeil traveled throughout the United States to study the speech patterns we take for granted. Detailing the twists and turns that the American dialect has taken over the years, MacNeil debunks accepted myths about the homogenization of speech and explains why regional dialects still exist.

MacNeil will be online Thursday, Jan. 13 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions and comments on his new book, language and what it means to "Speak American."


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"Do You Speak American?" is a companion book to the PBS series of the same name.

For his newest book, "Do you Speak American?," co-author and former co-anchor of PBS' the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour Robert MacNeil traveled throughout the United States to study the speech patterns we take for granted. Detailing the twists and turns that the American dialect has taken over the years, MacNeil debunks accepted myths about the homogenization of speech and explains why regional dialects still exist.

MacNeil was online Thursday, Jan. 13 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions and comments on his new book, language and what it means to "Speak American."

"Do You Speak American?" is a companion book to the PBS series of the same name.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Robert MacNeil: Hi this is Robert MacNeil. Thanks for joining this today.

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Detroit, Mich.: Are there any English dialects in neighboring Canada that differ extensively from those in the United States?

Robert MacNeil: Canadian English is part of North American English and a lot of it originated in America and was taken north by the Loyalists after the U.S. Revolution, which made Canada a separate country. Where I come from in Nova Scotia there is a distinctive dialect part of the Atlantic Canada dialect. I grew up pronouncing "out" to sound like "oat." The other differences in Canada are slight and hard for non-Canadians to detect. We do say "eh" a lot and we are very polite. We even say "thank you" to our ATM machines.

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New York, N.Y.: Where does slang come from?

Robert MacNeil: Slang usually originates in the jargon of some profession. For instance the American expression "to come clean" began as underworld or criminal jargon or "cant" but then, slowly emerged into general usage, first labeled slang in dictionaries now called "informal." I noticed the AP used it recently in a story about Pete Rose "coming clean" about betting on baseball only in his autobiography.

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Arlington, Va.: I am sorry I missed the PBS show. Do you know if it will re-air? any plans for a DVD or video?

Thanks.

Robert MacNeil: Yes, it will be repeated but you will need to ask your local PBS station when they plan to do so.

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Lyme, Conn.: Do regionaal dialects exist? Ayep.

Robert MacNeil: Yes, they certainly survive despite the general impression that our immersion in broadcast media is homogenizing the language. Not only do dialects survive, some are growing more distinctive, for instance in the cities around the Great Lakes, in California and among African Americans in the inner cities. Some dialects are dying out, do not to media but the movement of people. Some examples of disappearing dialects are Gullah, the "Hillbilly" dialect of Appalachia and in the Sea Islands off the Carolinas.

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Falls Church, Va.: Besides English, what other language has had the biggest influence on the American language?

Robert MacNeil: Many languages have influenced American speech, starting with the Native American languages the first settlers encountered and whose names they borrowed for things like rivers and animals they had not seen before, such as raccoons. After that all the immigrants brought their own influence and in our book we list many of the words the different groups brought. One of the biggest contributions came from German and Yiddish. At the turn of the 19th-20th century 10 percent of Americans spoke German, the same percentage as speak Spanish today.

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Washington, D.C.: My question is: why do regional dialects remain? We move around more, we communicate with others more, and yet our distinct language differences remain. What prevents people from blending towards a uniform way of pronouncing words?

Robert MacNeil: Regional dialects remain because they are deeply embedded in our psyches and our identities. They may also be an unconscious way of defending ourselves against the forces of globalization and uniformity in our clothing, food chains, and media. This local sense of identity is a powerful force and is connected to our desire to be like the people we live among. One linguist, Carmen Fought, says: "We want to talk like the people we want to be like."

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Fallls Church, Va.: Which regions of our country have contributed the most to our language and usage? Thanks.

Robert MacNeil: The area of the U.S. most admired for its speech patterns is the Southern Midwest, or what linguists call the "Midland Region." It is this speech, clear of most regional identifiers, which the broadcast industry most emulates and that makes it highly influential.

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San Francisco: Any revelations on the "waiting on line/in line" debate? Is "on line" primarily an East Coast phrasing? I grew up in the Philadelphia area, have spent more of my life in that part of the country than out here. Have to admit, I miss that awful Philly accent, as much as I hated it when I lived there!

Robert MacNeil: I can't tell you precisely where "on line" and "in line" occur, but I know that in California and in Ohio most people say "in line." Much of California speech originated with early settlers many of whom came from Ohio and the Midwest. If you wish to study this further there is a fascinating Web site offered by a linguistics professor, Bert Vaux, at Harvard and if you log on you can take part in the survey by answering questions like yours about your part of the country.

The Web site is http://hcs.harvard.edu/~golder/dialect/


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Adverbs, RIP: What has happened to the unpretentious adverb? Is adding an -ly too burdensome for the average American? Even my highly educated parents now say they want something "real bad."

Robert MacNeil: I sympathize with you, but the only thing I can recommend is that you use the language in a way that pleases you and don't worry about how other people use it - except your own children whom you can attempt to bring under your good example.

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Baltimore, Md.: Hip-hop is a strong sub-culture in this country, influencing music, fashion and major sports. Do you chronicle its influence on language in your book?

Robert MacNeil: Yes, we have extensive coverage of hip-hop and its roots in rap which we covered in The Story of English in the 1980s, and we give lots of examples. One feature stands out and that is using common words to mean the reverse of their usual meaning, so that "ill," "sick," and "nasty" are used to mean "good." One hip-hop group we covered in Michigan used "pro-nasty" as their highest compliment, meaning professionally nasty, that is, professionally the tops. One other influence cited in the book is white teenagers we watched IMing spelled their English words in a phonetic way that sounded like Black speech, for instance, writing "call me on my cell" as "call mi on mah cell."

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Columbia, Md.: Are there any resources you would recommend to someone interested in learning more about the fascinating topics you explore on the show? The vowel shift in the great lakes region for example was amazing, but I wondered if anyone knew or theorized as to why this was occurring? Enjoyed the show very much. Thanks

Robert MacNeil: Yes, The book "Do You Speak American?" has a large bibliography and on the Northern Cities Vowel Shift the linguist most involved is William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of many books, but especially "The Principles of Linguistic Change" Volumes I and II, published by Blackwell, Oxford 1994 and 2001.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: What is it about the cities around the Great Lakes that is making/keeping a regional dialect around? More exposure to Canadians and the Canadian media?

Robert MacNeil: I don't believe the linguists studying this attribute it to Canadian influence because Canadians don't pronounce the vowels in that manner.

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Greenville, N.C.: What impact do you think increasing numbers of native Spanish speakers in the U.S. will have on American English?

Robert MacNeil: This is a big question and a very controversial one today. Some believe that Spanish threatens the predominance of English in America and want to make English the official language of the United States by Constitutional amendment. That movement is going nowhere, but the linguists we worked with consider it unnecessary because their studies show that Hispanic immigrants are assimilating into mainstream English at the same generational rate as other immigrant groups in the past, and the latest census data seem to bear that out. But the concentrated presence of many Spanish speakers in one community can give the misleading impression that immigrants get by without learning English. Walt Wolfram, a distinguished linguist from North Carolina, has noted that in your state Hispanic immigrants are mingling Spanish accents with Southern speech and thereby creating a kind of new dialect.

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Washington, D.C.: How did you get interested in studying dialects?

Robert MacNeil: I am not a linguist, merely a journalist who is fascinated by the subject. I think began when I noted in my own family different members speaking differently. I had a grandmother from Chattanooga, Tenn., a grandfather from Nova Scotia, a father from Montreal, and so on. My grandfather would say "garridge," my mother would say "garaghe," and I started to wonder about that. In Canada during World War II when I was a child, we listened to the BBC, Canadian radio, and all the American radio programs, so I heard many different accents and it intrigued me.

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McLean, Va.: What about "Ebonics" -- do you think it's detrimental to a large part of our society?

Robert MacNeil: Ebonics is another word for what linguists call the African American Vernacular English, a dialect of English. The controversy over Ebonics arose when the Oakland, Calif. school system claimed that it was a different language and therefore qualified for federal funds to finance the teaching of ESL, English as a Second Language. The furor that arose greatly confused the issue, which remains important in American schools, and an obstacle to children from the inner cities who have more trouble learning to read and a higher dropout rate than other American children. In our TV series and book we explore an experiment in Los Angeles schools to teach 5th graders the difference between their home speech and mainstream American English. Steve Harvey, a popular radio host in LA and an African American, says that to get on in this country "you need to be bilingual." Unfortunately many teachers, black and white, so look down on "street talk" that it prejudices them against the children, whom they sometimes treat as uneducable. The LA experiment is an effort to treat the black dialect more sympathetically and without racist putdowns to bring the children along into standard English.

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Fairfax, Va.: I heard what you said yesterday on NPR re: Black English and agree completely. I wish we'd stop maligning it and study it seriously as a dialect the way we do other regional or ethnic dialects. I think it's a subtle form of racism. We did the same thing with jazz, thinking it primitive, and now know it is one of the most sophisticated music forms out there.

Robert MacNeil: Right on!

I would like to thank you all, y'all, youns, yinz for your interesting questions and I will leave you with what is fast becoming the universal American form of address, so thanks you guys.

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Robert MacNeil: Incidentally, I will be at the Politics & Prose Bookstore at 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008, at 7 p.m. tonight.

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