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Do You Speak American?

By Will Schroeder | HUMANITIES, March/April 2004 | Volume 25, Number 2

How do you answer the question “Do you speak American?" Many people might answer that yes, they speak English. But English is not the only language spoken in this country. Twenty-eight million people speak Spanish, and more than 2.8 million of them do not speak English at all. Among Americans who speak English at home--82 percent--there is a variation in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar, from Maine watermen and Louisiana Cajuns to southern Californians.

A new documentary, Do You Speak American?, explores the country’s linguistic diversity. “Everyone has something to say about language,” says Susan Mills, the film’s executive producer.

The three-part documentary and an accompanying DVD, both supported by NEH, will debut this fall. An educational outreach program will bring the study of language to middle- and secondary-school students. Video images on a Web-enabled DVD are linked to a website, so that users will be able to access continually updated information. The web component is intended to prevent the static versions of the project--video images and the companion book to the series, written by Robert MacNeil--from becoming dated too quickly. Joan Friedenberg, the developer and producer of the film’s digital ancillaries, says that the DVD will allow student viewers to explore “links between language and culture in a way that today’s television--and today’s Internet-- by themselves cannot accomplish.”

Do You Speak American? is written and hosted by MacNeil, and directed, peak produced, and co-written by Bill Cran. The documentary takes on the stuff of sociolinguistics--the discipline that studies less the mechanics of language than the social ramifications of language--and asks questions about power, education, and access to resources.

There is no one agreed-upon best way to speak American. Many factors contribute to the way a person speaks: regional origin or affinity, ethnicity, social or economic class, level of education. The components of linguistic identity do not always match up neatly. Some people switch from one dialect to another. “You do have to be bilingual in this country,” says Los Angeles disc jockey Steve Harvey, a speaker of Black English. For him and many other Americans, speaking one way at home and another at work is part of living on the ethnic margins of American society.

Others put on an accent for entertainment purposes. Country singer Cody James comes from Oregon, but sings with a Southern accent, he says, not just to sell records, but because “it’s real comfortable.”

“Talkin’ country has now become the informal way to speak American,” says MacNeil. Inland Southern English is the largest dialect group in America and still growing, says John Fought, a linguist who studies the “New South phenomenon,” the rising vogue for Southern ways and country talk. It is spoken from the Piedmont east of the Appalachians to the Ohio River watershed, across the Mississippi, through Texas into the Southwest, and throughout the Sunbelt. Along with pronunciation and vocabulary, double modals--“Zack had ought to give your hat back” and “I might could visit you”--and constructions such as “fixin’ to” are characteristics.

Do You Speak American? features audio clips of presidential inaugurations, illustrating the salty Texan expressions of President Lyndon Johnson, President Jimmy Carter’s Georgian inflections, and President Bill Clinton’s Arkansas twang--all three spoke forms of Inland Southern English publicly, even though the dialect has long been considered non-standard. Southern comedian Jeff Foxworthy makes his living by making Southerners and others laugh at the way Southerners talk. His style of comedy deals head-on with the prejudices people hold about speakers of Southern dialects. When asked by MacNeil, “Do you think Northern people think Southerners are stupid because of the way they talk?” Foxworthy replies, “Yes, I think so, and I think Southerners really don’t care that Northern people think that.”

“We like our food spicy and we like our language spicy, too,” says Texan journalist Molly Ivins in an on-camera interview. She believes that language in the Lone Star state has a “lunatic quality of exaggeration” that encourages people to invent new metaphors all the time: such as the Texanisms “I’m happy enough to be twins” and “meaner than a skillet full of rattlesnakes.”

“There was a popular intellectual theory about twenty years ago that the whole country is talking more and more alike, with the interstate highways and Howard Johnson restaurants,” says Ivins. “But what’s amazing is not the fragility of those cultures, but their hardihood. I’m amazed by the tenacity with which custom and dialect endures.”

Dialects are the seedbed in which language grows and expands. Texan English, which has incorporated elements of Plantation Southern, Appalachian, German, Polish, and Czech into its distinctive sound and vocabulary, has coined terms such as “wrangler,” “maverick,” “rustler,” and “chuck wagon,” as well as the phrases “stiff upper lip” and “hot under the collar”--all of which have been adopted into standard English. “Bronco,” “stampede,” “corral,” “lasso,” and “vamoose,” Texan terms that bear the influence of Mexican Spanish, have also made their way across the country and into popular speech.

“When people talk about how they speak, they are talking about who they are, and what it means to live where they live,” says linguist Barbara Johnstone. She studies Pittsburghese, the dialect of her native city, and its characteristic features such as “yins”--the plural form of “you”--which she says harks back to Scottish and Irish immigrants and is still in use in Belfast today.

“People’s fierce pride in their own speech is a measure of the importance of place,” MacNeil says.

Dozens of varieties of English flourish regardless of considerations of formality and propriety, yet there still exists a debate among scholars, literati, educators, and politicians about whose English deserves to be represented as correct. American English may be spoken around the globe, but it is not actually the official language of the United States: no law has ever been passed to declare it as such.

The documentary identifies the linguistic camps that stake out academic, cultural, or social ground in deciding how to approach language in the absence of a legal standard. Broadly defined, there are two sides: the descriptivists and the prescriptivists. Descriptivists record language but make no value judgments about it, in an attempt to document how people actually speak. Prescriptivists, on the other hand, such as some editors and English teachers, consider deviations from the norm substandard.

Prescriptivists believe that language should not change, and decry popular influences on English in America. William Safire, who writes the column “On Language” for the New York Times magazine, scolds public figures for contorting the meaning of words, and has rebuked the 2000 Census for its misuse of commas and misleading phrasing. “The United States Census 2000 says: ‘Please use a black or blue pen.’ I have a blue pen that writes with black ink; I suppose that's O.K. But I also have a black pen that writes with red ink; is that impermissible?”

Traditionally, written language has been the guardian of formality. But many English-language newspapers in America are tending more and more toward what they see as a more informal and accessible tone. One “language watchdog” MacNeil interviews is the assistant managing editor of the Columbus Dispatch, Kirk Arnott. He says the standards of correctness he maintains have to do with helping reporters avoid word misuse in the narrowest sense. Arnott makes sure that “bemused” is used according to its dictionary definition--it means “perplexed,” and not “amused”--and that “nonplussed” is used to mean “bewildered,” not “unperturbed.”

“We should be as conversational as we can be, because we should be as accessible as we can be,” Arnott says. “I certainly don’t want it to sound as if the paper were edited by a schoolmarm, but still, someone has to keep language from slipping into the abyss.”

But both sides of the debate recognize one necessary feature of human language: it does constantly change. Safire concedes that semantic meaning shifts with time and technology--in a recent column he gave the word “blog” a nod of approval, explaining that the term refers to personal web logs. But many prescriptivists wish to prevent just this sort of change, and refuse to admit neologisms. When asked about the state of American English, theater critic John Simon describes it as “unhealthy, poor, sad.”

In contrast, some descriptivist linguists see a positive change in the way the public views language. “One of the most important trends today is that we are coming to celebrate and recognize dialect differences as part of our national cultural heritage, instead of stamping them out,” says Walt Wolfram, a sociolinguist at North Carolina State University.

“In a country full of quirky accents, there seems to be one accent everyone agrees is ‘normal,’” MacNeil says in the film. “For most Americans, the Midland accent, from the Northern family of dialects, is the yardstick of the most normal or correct English.” Midland English is spoken in a zone that reaches from Ohio, Michigan, and Northern Indiana, to Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

While the Great Lakes region dialect used to be considered the broadcast standard, it is now changing away from that, says William Labov. He and other linguists are keeping an eye on what they call the Northern Vowel Shift, a phenomenon in the industrial inland near the Great Lakes. In the urban areas of Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Flint, Gary, Syracuse, Rochester, Rockford, and Toledo, vowels are trading places. Words such as “stuck” are pronounced so that speakers of other dialects hear “stack”; and “stalk” sounds like “stock.” The shift is spreading in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Indianapolis.

Labov believes that the vowel shift is the most fundamental language revolution to occur in English in a thousand years. It has already affected thirty-four million people.

These changes suggest that American speech is not becoming more homogeneous. “This is the most surprising result of our research,” says Labov. “While local dialects of small communities may be receding, the larger regional patterns are becoming more different from each other.” He says that the dialects of New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Saint Louis, Dallas, and Los Angeles are more different from each other today than they were just fifty years ago.

“Movies, television, and the radio industry help spread new language,” MacNeil says.

Movies that have become cult classics, such as the 1995 Clueless, help spread California teen phrases such as the skeptical “as if,” and “whatever,” and slang terms: “flava,” “money,” and “smooth,” to mean “good,” and “random,” “heinous,” and “sucks” for “bad.”

Contemporary teenagers MacNeil interviews in Irvine, California, offer him words such as “uber,” to describe intensity, and “tight” for something good.

Teen talk is a way of establishing peer groups and moving away from the family and into a tribe of friends, says Winnie Holzman, the writer and creator of the television series My So-Called Life. “There’s almost nothing more personal than how you express yourself,” she says.

Do You Speak American? discusses white teens’ use of instant-messaging slang, which the viewer discovers is heavily influenced by Black English, or what many linguists now call African American Vernacular English. “Ima,” “das kool,” and “sup wit u” mean “I’m going to,” “that’s cool,” and “what’s up with you?” In instant messaging, the medium is text, but the register--the tone and the vocabulary associated with a particular context--is informal.

“Everything follows the streets in America,” says one member of the Athletic Mike League, a Detroit hip-hop crew. In a dialect in which “bad” sometimes means “good,” these rappers attend university and alternate between formal English and their street variety.

At the same time as they identify with one community through language, they realize they must learn another variety to prosper economically or socially. Geneva Smitherman, a sociolinguist and consultant to the documentary, calls this “linguistic push-pull.” Do You Speak American? examines the case of three African American mothers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who brought a lawsuit in federal court in 1978 because they believed their children were being discriminated against in school for speaking African American Vernacular English. The ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in The Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School Children v. The Michigan Board of Education et al. affirmed that the children were being denied equal access to education. “For the first time, you had a federal judge acknowledge formally that African American Vernacular English represented a significant linguistic barrier to academic achievement and success,” says John Baugh, professor of linguistics at Stanford University.

At the same time, “the more we badmouth black speech, the more we are fascinated by it,” MacNeil contends. He says that at least as far back as the turn of the twentieth century, when ragtime and jazz were gaining popularity, white America has been interested in black cultural forms. Today hip-hop, with its reliance on African American Vernacular English, influences the speech of white teens, and not just in the instant messaging chat room.

Cliff Nass, co-director of the Social Responses to Communication Technologies Project at Stanford University, creates computer technology that simulates different regional or ethnic accents. He says that many people attach linguistic expectations to a person’s appearance. If you look African American, most people assume you will speak with African American Vernacular English characteristics--and if you speak otherwise, “That mismatch can lead to mistrust.”

The documentary ends with a note on the voice-activated technology Nass is developing. Such innovations will allow drivers to navigate or dial phone calls without touching a button. If computer voice recognition becomes widely available, Americans may of necessity have to learn a standard way of speaking--otherwise their cars might not function. There may be limits to the technology, Nass says. “Do we want to have a cacophony of voices in the home? It’s not clear that people are going to want to have long conversations with their toasters or refrigerators--we have to design around that problem.”

About the Author

Will Schroeder is a freelance writer in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Funding Information

Do You Speak American? has received $965,000 in NEH support for the documentary, website, and Web-enabled DVD. More information can be found at