PBS investigates the many ways we speak 'American'
Washington Post
Jan. 3, 2005

Judith S. Gillies

There are many ways to speak American, and journalist Robert MacNeil has become fluent in many of them.

MacNeil spent months talking with people from all walks of life as well as language experts across the United States.

The result is the PBS three-hour documentary Do You Speak American? - a combination road trip and travelogue with a look at the state of the American language today.

MacNeil surveys how American English is changing, and how surfers, Hollywood, immigrants, skaters, CB radio users, and instant messaging influence the words we use. He also explores how regional dialects reflect cultural identities as well as the conclusions people draw about Americans from how they speak.

Adding a bit of levity about language is comedian Jeff Foxworthy, who talks with MacNeil about the differences between Northern- and Southern-accented speech.

Some of the most intelligent people he's ever known talk the way he does, Foxworthy says in the program, but Southern accents aren't readily accepted by all. One of his favorite jokes is that "nobody wants to hear their brain surgeon say, 'Al'ight now. What we're gonna do is, saw the top of your head off, root around in there with a stick and see if we can't find that dadburn clot.' "

Linguist John Baugh demonstrates an ongoing experiment in "linguistic profiling" when he telephones a real estate agent about an apartment. Using three dialects - African-American, Latino and neutral American - he gets vastly different responses.

The documentary looks at the influence of Spanish on American English. MacNeil visits the Texas town of El Cenizo, which made Spanish its official language, and he talks with Allan Wall, a language teacher who lives in Mexico and is an advocate of making English the official language of the United States.

In California, MacNeil talks with linguist Carmen Fought about Chicano English, a "street talk" spoken in Los Angeles.

Fought says Spanish is following "the classic pattern that the first generation born in the United States often will retain the home language, but by the second generation born here, the home language is often lost.

"So I don't think that Spanish is a threat to English in any way. I think if anything, it's Spanish that is in danger," Fought said.

Also in California, performer Steve Harvey talks about the Black American dialect, observing: "I speak good enough American. . . . I don't think there's any one set way, because America's so diverse."

But, Harvey says, "you do have to be bilingual in this country. And that means you can be very adept at slang, but you have to be adept at getting through a job interview."

One of MacNeil's favorite segments in the documentary shows fifth-graders in LA playing a Jeopardy!-style game in which they try to translate their "home language" into mainstream American.

"The kids are so animated and so bright and so involved in this lesson," MacNeil said. The language barrier can be a huge obstacle, "but these kids seem to be overcoming it with great verve."

MacNeil, who was born and reared in Canada, said he has always been fascinated by words and the way people pronounce them. He recalls from his childhood that family members, including a grandmother from Chattanooga, Tenn., had different ways of speaking.

About 20 years ago, he explored The Story of English in a PBS documentary. Do You Speak American? was a natural follow-up.

"I think I went into this project half-believing the widespread assumption that the mass media would homogenize the country and gradually have us all talking the same. But the opposite is true."