The Magazine

American Speak

This tongue has many colors.

Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By SARA LODGE
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In the musical My Fair Lady, snooty dialectician Henry Higgins searches in vain for “purity” of expression in English; he winces at the Scots and the Irish, shudders at the Cockney London accent. His parting shot is, however, fired across the Atlantic: There even are places where English completely disappears, / In America they haven’t used it for years! sings the Englishman.

Navajo code talkers during the battle for Bougainville, 1943

Navajo code talkers during the battle for Bougainville, 1943

AP

Higgins’s prejudice is absurd, but his identification of American parlance as quite distinct from his own is correct. The difference between American English and British English is considerable—at least as wide as the difference between an American and an English muffin. Both are made from similar ingredients, but they feel very different on the palate. American English (it seems to my British ears) has greater rise and bounce. “Awesome!” was a word I first encountered at university, spoken by an American friend whose optimism was legendary. “You rock! I’m psyched,” he would exclaim when I left homemade cake in the communal kitchen. “That sucks!” he commiserated when misfortune befell me. 

All of these expressions were new and exciting. They had the ring of Walt Whitman’s poetic “whoop” and “holler”: the language of a nation that celebrates its own physical vigor. British people, it goes without saying, do not whoop. British English is a flatter language, of deadpan irony, subtle hint, and withering understatement. In a comic Internet “translation guide to Britspeak,” an anonymous American source explains that when British people say “With the greatest respect” they mean “I think you are an idiot.” This is true. Americans talk turkey. British people mince their words.

In Speaking American, Professor Richard W. Bailey traces the development of a distinct “American English” from the 16th to the 21st century. The book takes a series of case studies of particular towns at particular periods in history to illustrate some of the mechanisms that have affected the changing use and perception of language in the United States.

In 1643, Roger Williams published (in London) A Key into the Language of America. His book described the languages spoken by the Native Americans in Rhode Island. He introduced words from Algonquian into English, but his project was also to introduce European intellectuals to the rich mesh of languages and dialects of the new continent. Communication was crucial for early settlers who relied on their contact with Native Americans. In this era, “linkisters”—bilinguals who could act as links between communities speaking different languages—were highly valued.

It was not long, however, before setting limits on acceptable language became a tool for asserting power in the new colony. The Puritans in Massachusetts enacted a law to require deferential speaking. Quakers, whose leveling system of belief was reflected in universally using “thee” and “thou,” rather than the gradations of status involved in distinguishing “you” (respectful) from “thou” (familiar), faced punishments ranging from whipping to execution. Women might also fall foul of patriarchal linguistic rules. In 1637, Anne Hutchinson was banished for striving to address the male ministers in equal terms. “Speaking up” in early American history could constitute a criminal offense in ways unthinkable today. Yet the speech community was already distinctive for the “cluster of various ways of speaking” in which diverse groups could communicate across racial, educational, and linguistic lines.

Just as geology shapes landscape, so social geography shapes language. For example, Charleston, South Carolina, was, in the early 18th century, a sharply divided community. Only 12 percent of the residents in 1710 were white;
22 percent were black slaves and 66 percent were Native American. Most of the white planters hailed from Barbados and, in the face of relative isolation, felt a very strong connection to England. They persisted in sending their sons to England to be educated at British public schools and universities, and maintaining “correct” English usage was important to them. 

Thus, they continued using “prestige” forms of British English pronunciation much longer than other areas of America. Words like “calm,” “palm,” and “psalm” were pronounced “cam,” “pam,” and “sam.” The “r” sound in many words was genteelly omitted while the final “g” in verbs was politely dropped. Well into the 19th century, the eminent citizens of Charleston were goin’ on speakin’ at smaaht paahties in a fashion that would be associated with upper-class Britons. 

Meanwhile, elsewhere in America, markers of educated and uneducated speech had shifted, and some of the very habits that had been indicators of social prestige for Anglophiles, such as droppin’ that final “g,” were (ironically) fast becoming associated with vulgar speech habits. Professor Bailey’s book is a timely reminder that there is never a stable or absolute “correct” form of expression in any language: The quest for authoritative speech is always a negotiation between competing groups with different norms and values who may coexist separately, integrate peacefully, or force others to submit to their laws.

Linguistic movements often involve conflict. Bailey describes the New York Shakespeare riots of 1849 in which 30 people were killed and 170 badly injured. The topic that sparked the public mayhem, incredibly, was whether American or British English was the superior vehicle for performing Shakespeare. 

Edward Forrest, an American acting star, was playing to the lower classes at the Bowery and claimed that, if Shakespeare had been alive, he would sound American. The English actor William Charles Macready, who was playing to upper-class houses at the Astor Opera House, used elegant 19th-century British diction and averred that this was how Shakespeare should be spoken. A cross-weave of class and national sentiment turned a theatrical controversy into a public tragedy.  Of course, what was at stake was not merely pronunciation, but ownership: British English speakers tended to find American speech “purer” before they lost the War of Independence; after 1800, jokes about the gaucheness of “Americanisms” (a new coinage in 1781) multiplied.

Bailey’s study extends to modern times and the influence of Los Angeles surfer and “Valley” slang through film and television. He makes the interesting point that Hollywood, through marketing an “invented vernacular,” has a disproportionate and often unconscious effect on what the world thinks America sounds like. For example, the 1990s television series Beverly Hills 90210 was not at all representative of the mixed speech community in the ZIP code it claimed to depict, where nearly a third of residents were born outside the United States and the most frequently used language, after English, is Farsi. Such fantasies tend to perpetuate a global image of America as less linguistically and culturally diverse than it has always been.

Speaking American is the last work of an eminent academic, who, sadly, died shortly before he could see it into print. Doubtless, it would have been edited further had he lived, but it still makes a fascinating contribution to the study of American English. 

For a chattier, youthful, and personal tour of America’s linguistic heritage, I can recommend Trip of the Tongue by Elizabeth Little. Little is a self-confessed polyglot swot: a lady who collects dictionaries of obscure languages the way other people collect passport stamps. She also, however, enjoys playing poker and has an extensive repertoire of expletives. When driving west from Seattle on Highway 101 to study the Makah language, she is so overwhelmed by the splendor of the Olympic Mountains that her obscenities reach sublime heights. Such idiosyncrasies and self-deprecating anecdotes enliven with humor a road trip that also has a serious intellectual agenda: to uncover America’s lesser-known languages.

Her journey takes her (among many other destinations) to Montana to study the Crow language; to Arizona to explore Navajo; to South Carolina to trace Gullah; and to North Dakota to reconnect with the Norwegian speakers from whom her own family is descended. Everywhere she goes, she discovers rich seams of language glinting like rare minerals in the rocks of America. Her account of these languages and the communities that use them is beguiling. 

I was fascinated, for example, by her description of Navajo, which is part of a vast family of Native-American languages that has relatives as far apart as Mescalero in the Southwest and Eskimo in Alaska. Navajo has a verbal matrix of such sophistication and precision that it would delight a computer programmer. Verbs in Navajo consist of stems, modified by a long series of possible prefixes. They can tell us not only when an action was performed and whether the perpetrator was singular or plural, but, with great clarity and specificity, what happened—did the chickens fly the coop all at once, or one by one?—and what the perpetrator was like.

The physical properties of objects affect verb stems: Rock, paper, and scissors would have their different morphologies embedded in the verbs used to describe how they act. Many Native-American languages contain calibrations of equal subtlety. 

It is sobering to find, through Little’s travels, that most of these remarkable and intricate languages are under threat of extinction. Linguist Michael Krauss has estimated that of the 175 indigenous languages still spoken in the United States, 90 percent are at risk. Although the 19th-century decree, reflected in early 20th-century educational policy, that “the Indian tongue must be put to silence and nothing but the English allowed in all social intercourse” is now discredited, the damage done by decades of negativism and neglect will be difficult to undo. Little reveals that Harvard teaches courses in Old Norse and Sanskrit but none in any Native-American language. 

Everywhere in her tour of America, Little encounters vibrant language clusters: groups which cherish rich, mixed linguistic heritages. But, equally, she meets with many people who, for various reasons (race, class, politics), have been forcibly made to abandon their linguistic heritage. This is heartbreaking, and one leaves this book with a strong conviction that it must stop.

Languages matter, not just because they are beautiful in themselves, but because they express a unique way of thinking and being in the world. Making a person ashamed of his or her birth language is akin to making that person ashamed of his or her birth family: It is a process of self-alienation that produces deep and lasting harm. Better than any tribal headdress or slave-sewn quilt (objects which American museums rightly treasure), a language can take us into a culture, as it has developed and been passed down over centuries, and offer us a chance to engage with its living form, color, subjectivity, and creativity. A language is a time machine: When we lose it, we lose the chance to speak with our ancestors.

As Little points out, many of the words that seem most American originate in other languages. “Yankee” may derive from “Jan Kees” (John Cheese), an affectionate Dutch dig at New Englanders. Many American state names have Native-American roots. Languages other than English are much closer to “home” than many American citizens who think they speak only English realize. Both Speaking American and Trip of the Tongue are gentle and eloquent pleas for America to recognize and celebrate its linguistic diversity as a key strength.

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English  at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-
Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.