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What's in store for American English? Are pronunciations changing? Is greater mobility causing us to sound more alike than different? Will computer technologies alter the way we speak? Is the globalization of English a good thing? Robert MacNeil shares some observations from his linguistic journey across the United States:
Mass media and language:
- Exposure to mass media is not homogenizing American language or making us all talk the same.
- Although some localized dialects are dying out--for example in Appalachia and on the islands off the Carolinas-that is due to population movement, not the media.
- Regional dialects, accents and pronunciations of American English remain vigorous. Some are growing more distinctive, not less.
- Changes in pronunciation that linguists do consider revolutionary are occurring in cities around the Great Lakes where, for example, the vowel in busses can sound like bosses, and block sounds more like black.
- Media exposure can spread new vocabulary and give people in different regions an understanding of the "standard American" that broadcasters use, but it does not make listeners speak that way themselves.
- People cling to local speech patterns, such as the distinctive speech of Pittsburgh, to give them a sense of place and belonging. As linguist, Carmen Fought puts it: "People want to talk like the people they want to be like."
- Due to a huge migration to the South and Southwest and the national appeal of country music, Southern speech is now the largest accent group in the United States.
- The dominant form is what linguists call Inland Southern, deriving from Appalachia, with the final "r" pronounced in words such as mother. The Plantation Southern of the coastal plains, with its r-less pronunciation, is dying out. Southerners are now pronouncing their 'r's.
- Despite decades of progress in civil rights and the rise of a large black middle class, inner city African-Americans talk less like white Americans than they did two and three generations ago. More separate language means more separate groups of people.
- White Americans and many blacks consider Black English or street talk bad or lazy English, even "gibberish." Because many teachers share that view, language is a major academic obstacle for black children.
- Paradoxically, white America continues to borrow black language as enthusiastically as ever, (just as black music), most recently in the huge Hip Hop craze among white teenagers.
The effect of Hispanic/Latino immigration:
- Many Americans fear that continuous Hispanic migration, and large concentrations of Spanish speakers, threaten American English. That fear is one motive behind the so far unsuccessful campaign to make English our official language. Do You Speak American? argues that Mexican and other Hispanic migrants are learning English at the same generational rate as previous immigrants groups. By the second generation many can no longer speak Spanish.
Is American English declining?
- Many Americans believe that our language is in serious decline, with schools neglecting grammar and the media mangling it. Professional linguists do not see decline. They see language reflecting a society that has become more informal in its dress and manners and more permissive in its sexual morality, but still quite concerned with correctness.
The influence of California:
- A California dialect is emerging and becoming more influential across the nation and around the world. Using elements of Valley Girl and Surfer Dude, more Americans are sounding like Californians by fronting vowels, so that do sounds like dew, and by raising their voices at the end of sentences to make statements sound like questions.
Teaching computers to speak American
- One of the big unknowns about the future of our language is the effect of computers. Around the country, engineers and programmers are working to make computers speak and understand us. Will that technology, and the business imperatives behind it, create an irresistible drive to more standard speech? If so, which accents or varieties of American speech will that standard leave out?
The role of women:
- One of the most interesting ideas encountered is that language change is driven by women, who are said to be a generation ahead of men in adopting new pronunciations and speech styles. Linguists see parallels between language and fashion.
for the Humanities
William and Flora Hewlett
Corporation of New York
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