Robert MacNeil defends American English

By Stephanie Mielcarek

A small crowd gathered at the Oriental Institute Wednesday to hear celebrated journalist Robert MacNeil speak about the various controversies and ideas surrounding American English. The event, “Do You Speak American?,” focused on MacNeil’s book and PBS series of the same name.

MacNeil is probably best known as co-host of the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, but has also written several critically acclaimed books, including Looking for My Country and Wordstruck.

In the 1980s, Lehrer developed the Story of English series with Robert McCrum and William Cran. After retiring from NewsHour, he and Cran had the opportunity to focus on their particular interest—the many varieties of American English.

Do You Speak American? came together in 2003 and 2004, and was aired as a three-hour PBS special on January 5. The production takes the form of a journey through North America, starting in MacNeil’s hometown, in Nova Scotia, and visiting a range of dialectal areas, from Tennessee to California.

MacNeil began his talk by noting that speakers of American English far outnumber those who speak British English worldwide, despite claims that the American version is inferior and should be remedied. Prince Charles once said that Americans tend to “invent all sorts of new nouns and verbs, and make words that shouldn’t be.”

Prince Charles, however, is in the minority. American English is “the engine driving the language worldwide,” MacNeil said, citing the influence of popular sitcoms, literature, and even the military.

MacNeil mentioned two extremes of American linguistic critics: The “prescriptivists,” who claim that “the language is going to hell,” and want to enforce strict grammatical rules; and the “descriptivists,” who say that changes in a language evidence a culture’s changing nature and creativity, and should not and cannot be stopped.

Where one stands on this spectrum is a matter of age, education, and temperament. At one point, MacNeil said, he argued that the term “media” should be plural, because of both its Latin origin as a plural noun and the variety of news sources in the country. Those who saw “the media” as a single conglomerate overruled him, and this is how the term is used today.

The idea of a singular media raises the issue that perhaps “American” will become homogenized in the years ahead, as we all listen to the same radio and watch the same television and movies. Nothing could be farther from the truth, MacNeil said.

“Americans are not talking more and more alike,” he said. “If anything, they are talking more different from one another.”

In their trip across America, MacNeil and Cran realized that the many different dialects are still strong, and in some cases becoming even stronger and spreading across the country. MacNeil noted the increasing use of a Californian dialect, with elements of “valley girl” and “surfer dude.” This particular dialect includes “raising inflection of ends of sentences so they turn them into questions?” and the use of ‘like’ as a placeholder—a phenomenon MacNeil is baffled to see even on the East Coast.

MacNeil also noted the variety of accents that U.S. presidents have had in recent years. President Bush “talks country,” as in “there’s no negotiations with North Korea.” This country accent, including a tendency to drop the final “g” in words like “doin”’ is also spreading across the States.

Another common myth, that increased Hispanic immigration poses a threat to English, is similarly unfounded, MacNeil claimed. It has been concluded, he said, that Spanish-speaking children have been assimilated into the English language at the same rate as immigrants from other backgrounds. A child might arrive in kindergarten speaking only Spanish, but often leaves speaking only English.

MacNeil also touched on the topic of inner-city black speech, saying that it has been moving on a different track than much of the English language ever since the beginning of the Great Migration north. However, it is not a separate language, and did not even evolve from one, he said. In the late 1930s, the Works Progress Administration interviewed—and recorded—a number of former slaves. Scholars later found that this speech almost exactly resembled whites’ of the same time period and location. “When language is more separate, it is because people are more separate,” MacNeil said.

He mentioned the controversial Oakland School Board Resolution of 1996, in which a program was implemented to teach black children “standard” English, after teachers complained that they only spoke “ebonics” or “gibberish.” MacNeil noted that these children could not have literally been speaking gibberish, as they were quite obviously capable of communication.

When it comes to discussing language, “We permit ourselves a degree of racism which is really rather shocking,” MacNeil said.

Although stressing that change is good for American English, MacNeil commented that he finds some innovations in the language particularly amusing, remarking that a flight attendant once asked a friend if he had been “beveraged.” “I can’t get used to ‘hospitalize,'” he said. “It means, to me, to be turned into a hospital.”