The Magazine

American Speak

This tongue has many colors.

Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By SARA LODGE
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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.