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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 in large cities:

"When the baby be sleep, and the othe' kids be at school, and my husband be at work, then ... I might can finally sit down."

"She told David they Mama had went to Chicago to see her sister and her sister's new baby."

These examples show the invariant "be," and the construction "had went." Bailey and Cukor-Avila say that these features did not exist in black speech before World War II. They conclude that, after the great migration to the North from World War I to the 1970s, blacks were segregated in urban ghettoes, had less contact with whites than they had in places like Springville, and their speech began to develop new features, as all human speech does when people are separated culturally and have little communication.

This has serious consequences in efforts to reduce the school dropout rate among blacks. Not only white teachers, but many African-American instructors, despise the "street talk" or "slang" as they call it, and often treat the children as if they were stupid or uneducable. In 1979, a Federal judge in Detroit ruled that an Ann Arbor, Mich., school, ironically named after Martin Luther King, Jr., was discriminating against black kids because of their language and ordered the school to remedy it. Yet, the prejudice lives on elsewhere. In 1997, Oakland schools tried to get black speech recognized not as a dialect of English but a separate language, Ebonics, to qualify for Federal money to teach English as a second language. That backfired amid furious protests nationally from black and white educators.

What is shocking to linguists is the manner in which many newspaper columnists excoriate black English, using terms such as "gibberish." In the linguistic community, black English is recognized as having its own internal consistency and grammatical forms. It certainly is not gibberish (which means something unintelligible) because it works effectively for communication within the urban community.

One of the first to give black English this measure of respect was William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania, who testified at a Senate hearing during the Ebonics furor in 1997: "This African-American vernacular English ... is not a set of slang words, or a random set of grammatical mistakes, but a well-formed set of roles of grammar and pronunciation that is capable of conveying complex logic and reasoning."

To linguists, the fault lies not in a particular dialect, but in what attitudes others bring to it. Steve

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