[EnglishForShare] Do you speak American? Episode 1


Uploaded by vinhsoft on 31.01.2013

Transcript:
ANNOUNCER: How we talk to one another defines who we are.
MAN: Ayuh.
ANNOUNCER: And American English
is as rich. diverse. and lively as Americans themselves.
ANNOUNCER: From north to south...
MAN: 65 is where l started.
ANNOUNCER: ...east to west.
WOMAN: l say. like. ''like'' and ''dude'' every other word.
[rappers rapping]
ANNOUNCER: We love to talk...
ROBERT: ls there somebody else that l could talk to?
ANNOUNCER: yap...
WOMAN: lt's a ''cah.''
ANNOUNCER: dish...
WOMAN: La chica sexy.
ANNOUNCER: ...and chew the fat.
MAN: lt's not a fair piece to Rabbit Hash.
ANNOUNCER: lt's clear that you are what you speak.
MAN: ''lsn't'' is not in my vocabulary.
The word is ''ain't.''
ANNOUNCER: So butter my butt and call me a biscuit...
and sit tight as we answer the burning question...
ROBERT: Do you speak American?
Do you speak American?
Do you. like. speak American?
Do you speak American?
Do you speak American. dawg?
Do you speak American?
Tu parles americain?
¿ Estás hablando american?
ANNOUNCER: ''Do You Speak American?''
has been made possible. in part.
by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
promoting excellence in the humanities.
Additional funding is provided by...
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Like many Americans.
l come from somewhere else.
l grew up along this rugged Atlantic shore
in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.
And my speech was colored by the dialect of maritime Canada.
lt's one of the great family of North American Englishes.
But when l moved to the U.S..
l began to speak more like Americans.
Words. accents. language have always fascinated me.
so it was thrilling twenty years ago
to work on a TV series about the English language.
ln our television series ''The Story of English.''
we traced the origins of our language
and how it spread around the world.
That was in the 1 980s.
l'm curious to see
how the language has moved on since then.
One thing is clearer: American English
has become the dominant form of the language.
So l'm setting out on a journey now
to see what's happening to English in the United States.
What answers do you get today
when you ask. ''Do you speak American?''
Our journey starts in the far Northeast
on a misty road in coastal Maine.
Linguists who study the American language
say the principal regional dialects remain strong.
but some distinctive local dialects are dying out.
Here among the lobstermen in South Freeport. Maine.
you can still hear the laconic. terse style
that sounds so New England.
but with mass communications and changes in population.
many worry that the Maine way of speaking
may become as scarce as lobsters.
JOHN COFFlN: We're down about fifty or sixty percent
from what we used to do.
ROBERT: Really?
JOHN: Six or eight years ago.
ROBERT: Because the lobsters just aren't there?
JOHN: They're not here.
Something's happening. we don't know what.
ROBERT: Lobsters decided to move on.
JOHN: They have moved.
ROBERT: Would you be sad
if the Maine way of talking kind of died out?
JOHN: Well. yeah. l think so. probably.
l'd like to think my kids and grandchildren talk that way
whether people laugh at you wherever we go. whatever.
ROBERT: Do people laugh at it?
JOHN: Oh. they have lots of times.
They used to when l was in the military.
make fun of me wicked.
ROBERT: So how do people from around here say. ''yes?''
JOHN: Ayuh.
ROBERT: Ayuh.
JOHN: Ayuh.
ROBERT: How do you spell it?
JOHN: A-Y-U-H.
ROBERT: Ayuh.
JOHN: Ayuh. Yeah. that's it.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Linguistically. the way Mainers speak
is part of a regional speech pattern
centered on Boston.
lt derives from early British colonists
who didn't pronounce the ''R''
at the end of words like ''father.''
Local dialects thrive when communities are isolated.
When many outsiders move in. local speech changes.
That's why Mainers fear that their dialect.
with its famous ''ayuh.''
is coming to the end of the road.
Hello.
MAN: Good morning. And how are you today?
ROBERT: l'm fine. How are you?
MAN: A good. educated monkey could do a job like this.
Yes. sir.
ROBERT: Thank you.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Linguists draw their own maps of North America
to mark different dialect areas.
To use their terms. we've started in Eastern New England.
We're going on to New York and Philadelphia...
then west into the Midland dialect.
then the Northern. the Southern and on to the West.
Right now l'm in Massachusetts. and l'm short of gas.
WOMAN: Good evening. What can l do for you?
ROBERT: Will you fill her up with unleaded please?
PAM HEAD: Sure.
ROBERT: When customers come from out of state. like me.
what do they think about your accent?
PAM: l lived in Oklahoma for a short time
and l had a conversation with a girl from Texas one day
and l was in the process of buying a ''cah.''
and she says what are you talking about?
l said a ''cah.''
She says. ''What is a cah?'' l said. ''What's a cah?''
l said. you know. automobile. vehicle.
thing you get in and drive.
She goes. ''Oh. you mean a car.''
ROBERT: That's funny.
PAM: l did. l had to go through all the different words
before she understood what l was talking about.
Yeah. it was a riot.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): With that accent
we might as well be in the heart of Boston.
whose way of speaking shows no weakening.
Americans consider themselves egalitarian
and unsnobbish about accents.
but they're full of notions about how not to speak.
l'm indulging a sentimental whim
to retrace a road l took many summers ago.
This is the Priscilla Beach Theatre.
one of the oldest barn theatres in New England.
Here l find actor-manager Geronimo Sands
rehearsing his one-man show.
GERONlMO: Beware of respectable people.
of people perfectly grammatical
and proud of it.
of persons who let their thinking be done...
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): l spent one summer here as an actor.
We were all young. eager and ambitious.
We did everything from sweeping the stage
to playing romantic comedies.
lt was on this stage that l first learned
that my speech was not considered correct.
And the first time l stood on this stage
and opened my mouth.
the director. he said. ''What did you say?''
And he said. ''You can't talk like that.''
because in Nova Scotia you pronounce--
at least l pronounced-- ''out'' like ''oat.''
and ''about'' like ''a-boat.'' and so l consciously changed it.
and this is a wonderful sentimental stop for me
because it was. l was. l was 21
and that's 52 years ago that l was here.
and it was a great summer.
After that summer l drove to New York.
My acting ambitions fortunately died.
but the city has become my home.
The crackling energy
of the creative forces concentrated here.
the sheer American power represented.
make New York an enormous generator of language.
The latest money jargon of Wall Street traders.
The fresher than fresh slogans of our relentless advertising.
The language that fuels the great publishing empires.
From the city that never sleeps.
24-7 on TV. cable. radio. electronic media.
come the words and ideas that define American culture
and market it to the world.
You can make a case that New York City
is now the global capital of the English language.
but what a language--
restless. slangy. constantly changing
and ever more informal.
Many people believe that change
is not only inevitable but unstoppable.
But not John Simon.
the acerbic theatre critic of New York magazine.
A Yugoslav immigrant himself.
he speaks for many mainstream Americans
who fear that if American English
continues to flaunt the rules of syntax and grammar.
it'll sow the seeds of its own destruction.
JOHN SlMON: Well. it has gotten worse.
lt's been my experience that there is no bottom.
one can always sink lower.
and that the language can always disintegrate further.
ROBERT: How would you describe the state of our language today?
JOHN: Unhealthy. poor. sad. depressing.
and probably fairly hopeless.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Jesse Sheidlower stands for everything John Simon hates.
He's the American editor
of the august O xford English Dictionary.
With his dark suit. tie. and rolled-up umbrella.
he certainly looks the part.
But you can't judge a book by its cover.
for he is also the author
of a scholarly history of the f-word.
Jesse's often in the New York Public Library
looking for new usages.
American English has always been inventive.
but it is now globally so influential
that the O xford Dictionary
needs a full-time office in New York City.
JESSE: American English has always been.
at least for the last hundred years.
it's always taken great pleasure in its slang.
You can find even Walt Whitman writing in praise of slang
in the 1 9th century.
about how wonderful it is and how poetic it is
and how. you know. this is the American spirit
distilled into language.
ROBERT: So when you come here. what are you looking for?
JESSE: We'll try to find magazines
that have words in them
that we think are going to be of interest.
and these can be in really any field out there.
ROBERT: What are you looking at at the moment?
JESSE: Right now we are looking at some magazines
devoted to tattooing and body piercing.
There are terms for these different kinds of piercing
and there are terms for different kinds of tattoos.
Blue. a music magazine. has a lot of stuff about hip-hop.
which is a big influence on the language.
A guide to ''zines.''
ROBERT: Fan magazines.
JESSE: Yes. they're just called ''zines'' nowadays.
ROBERT: So if you find a new word in one of these.
in one of these really lurid magazines.
and you decide to put it in. does that mean
that the dictionary has adopted the word
and. as it were. recognized it?
JESSE: No. not at all.
For now. it just means that we have an example in the database.
but then we have an example in Time magazine
and then we have an example in New York magazine.
and now we have an example in so-and-so.
and we start to think. well. OK.
this is a term that started off
as a very restricted subcultural thing.
but now it's very widespread.
and the fact that we did read something like this originally
will tell us something that we wouldn't know
if all we read was Newsweek.
ROBERT: l see.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Language enthusiasts tend to be
either prescriptivists or descriptivists.
Descriptivists like Sheidlower and other dictionary makers
are content to describe language as it changes.
Prescriptivists like Simon
believe you need prescribed rules to preserve language.
JOHN: The descriptive linguists are a curse upon their race.
who. of course. think that what the people say is the law.
and by that they mean the majority.
they mean the uneducated.
l think a society
in which the uneducated lead the educated by the nose
is not a good society.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Descriptivists deny treating uneducated usage as ''the law''
since they label it non-standard.
But they may record things like the often violent. homophobic.
misogynistic lyrics of gangster rap.
The result gives new currency to words like ''ho'' and ''bitch.''
Cece Cutler is an academic
who has studied the appeal that hip hop has
for white suburban teenage boys.
CECE CUTLER: For white male teenagers who are in the process
of forming their identities as young men.
the urban black male represents someone
who knows how to pick up women.
who knows how to handle himself on the street.
who perhaps knows how to handle a weapon
and can take care of himself.
This kind of way of walking or talking or dressing
can give one the trappings of a masculinity
that doesn't perhaps exist in the safe white suburbs.
The sort of more hard-core rappers
might appeal to young men
who are sort of afraid of young women
and are in the process of trying to figure out
how it is that one deals with them.
ROBERT: So to call them ''bitches'' and ''hos''
is a kind of way of getting rid of that problem?
CECE: Or putting away one's fear of those individuals.
DAVE: Were there bitches at the party?
For real?
Yeah. there's more. there's been more.
there's more hos recently l've noticed
at underground events than there used to be.
There used to be not so many.
J ASON: Thank goodness for us.
DAVE: Yeah.
ROBERT: Can you think of some examples of words
that have crossed over from hip hop into the mainstream?
CECE: We have terms like ''mad'' as a quantifier.
so you can say it's mad real or mad. it's mad raining.
There are terms like ''my bad.''
to mean. ''Oh. l just made a mistake.''
or the more colorful ''bling bling''
to refer to expensive. gaudy jewelry.
ROBERT: Any others?
CECE: Well. you can use. you can say. ''Wassup. B?''
to ask how somebody is.
KATE: Snuttle: fun. Chopsticks: hey. what's up?
Snuttle: just chillin'. you?
SnuttleMYbubble: do u guyz still have examz?
TOM: AaLiYaH: das kool.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Black English is an obvious influence
on the language of lMing. instant messaging.
TOM: Birdman: so anything new?
Birdman: u gonna to do anything else dis weekend?
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Written English has always been
the preserver of Standard English.
but written standards are always under assault.
The latest threat comes from instant messaging.
How much time do you guys spend doing this?
KATE: An hour and a half.
ROBERT: An hour and a half a day.
Tom. how much time do you spend here?
TOM: A lot.
l multitask. so l'll be lMing.
l'll be listening to music. l'll be doing my homework.
KATE: l mean. no one does caps or periods or punctuation.
lt's just ''omg'' is ''oh my god.''
and this is just short for ''know.''
Like sometimes people say ''g2g.'' which means ''got to go.''
TOM: ''jc.'' that means just chilling.
Then here's ''lol.'' laugh out loud.
and here. this means ''l'm going.'' ''l will.'' ''ima''--
And then she does here. ''you better call me on my cell.''
''Sup wit u'' means ''What's up?''
lt's like. you know. how you talk.
so how are you doing. honey?
JESSE: Written English in America
has been evolving greatly over the last certainly hundred years
and especially the last 30 or 40 years.
but nowadays if you look at even the most formal publications.
things like The New Yorker or The New York Times.
you will see a wide variety of colloquial or slangy language
used even in news articles.
People are interested in this. people speak this way
and want to reflect this way in their writing.
Written English has become much more informal
than it ever used to be.
ROBERT: What do you say to the people like John Simon
who are really angry
about what they see as a serious decline
in linguistic standards in this country?
JESSE: Well. l think they're wrong.
and l think they're misguided.
Language change happens
and there's nothing you can do about it.
JOHN: l mean. maybe change is inevitable.
maybe dying from cancer is also inevitable.
but l don't think we should help it along.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): But casual grammar and disturbing new words
aren't the only perceived threat to American English.
New York has always been the great doorway for immigration.
Today you can hear Spanish spoken all around you.
[woman speaking Spanish]
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): The practical question is whether Hispanic immigrants
will adopt English as other immigrants did.
ln New York. as in many parts of the country.
you'll find plenty of Latinos who don't speak English at all.
ROBERT: Hello? Do you speak English?
ROS A: No.
ROBERT: No?
ROS A: No.
ROBERT: ¿ Español?
ROS A: Si. español.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Rosa has lived here for 1 9 years
but speaks no English.
ROS A: ¿ Cómo se dice diecinueve años?
MAN: Nineteen years.
ROBERT: 1 9.
She says she has been too busy working.
ROS A: Ah porque siempre me dedicaba a trabajar.
ROBERT: Always working. yes.
American English is always borrowed
from immigrant languages and then enriched by them.
But is Spanish something different?
ls it replacing English?
Raspado... And it's a dollar?
One dollar. Thank you very much.
ROS A: Gracias.
ROBERT: Gracias. Thank you.
Buenos dias.
We'll return to the Spanish question
later in our journey.
but for now l'm in search of Standard American.
Continuing down the eastern seaboard.
we're headed for Philadelphia--
of course. the cradle of American democracy.
but also. in a way. the cradle
of what we now think of as the American speech.
At this stage what interests me most
is the whole idea of what passes for correct or incorrect
in American English.
Even before America declared its independence from Britain
here in Philadelphia.
the two Englishes had been going their own ways.
George Bernard Shaw once joked
that the two nations were separated by the same language.
Bill Labov is the director
of The Atlas of North American English.
What do you consider Standard American?
BlLL: Well. most linguists recognize
that there is a broadcast standard pronunciation
which is not fixed. but which converges
towards a pattern that is not local.
And that's changed over time.
ROBERT: lt drew originally from where?
BlLL: From England.
There was something called lnternational English
that was really modeled upon British-received pronunciation.
lt took its form in London
at the beginning of the 1 9th century.
Americans were not all influenced by it.
only the big Tory cities:
Boston. New York. Savannah. Charleston. Richmond.
They adopted that R-less pronunciation
whereby you say ''cah.'' not ''car.''
and ''store'' is just a ''staw.''
That's still the pattern in England today.
For me the model of that lnternational English standard
was always FDR.
He was a New Yorker
who had the prestige pattern of the upper class in New York
and was really R-less.
lt sounded like this...
FDR.: For those who would not admit the possibility
of the approaching storm.
the past two weeks have meant
the shattering of many illusions.
With this rude aw akening has come fear.
fear bordering on panic.
l do not share these fears.
BlLL: So you notice that every time the letter ''R'' comes up.
unless a vowel follows. it's going to sound like this.
FDR.: The approaching storm.
ROBERT: ''Stawm.''
BlLL: Not storm but ''stawm.''
FDR.: l do not share these fears.
BlLL: But it's more than just the ''R.''
You notice the way he says ''shattering.''
and ''utter good faith.''
so the pronunciation of ''T'' as ''T'' in those situations.
still found in Boston.
was again modeled on the British pattern.
and it held right up to the end of World War ll.
And then. to our great astonishment. it flipped.
So right after World War ll
people growing up in New York City
and in many other cities
behaved in just the opposite way--
when they were careful. they pronounced their Rs.
and when they were not careful. just speaking casually.
they stayed with their R-less dialect.
ROBERT: So people wanted to sound more English
before World War ll
and less so after World War ll?
BlLL: We hear British people use that pattern.
and we love it.
But it's not right for an American.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Labov believes Philadelphia
shaped American speech more than any other city
because it was the only east coast city
originally to pronounce its Rs.
and that ''R'' sound that so typifies American English
migrated west.
We're heading west ourselves on the train to Ohio.
Ohio is the opening
to what linguists call the Midland dialect.
Midland speech lies between the varieties of the North
and those of the South.
For this leg of the journey
we're joined by linguist Dennis Preston.
Dennis studies the strong opinions we seem to hold
about what we believe is right or wrong
in the speech of our fellow Americans.
DENNlS: There is a kind of American linguistic insecurity
which is very. very old.
After all. we didn't invent English.
They're really English who had a hold of it before us
and so there is a kind of lingering American insecurity
that. well. maybe with English we don't do the very best thing.
On the other hand there is American populism
and a desire not to be stuffy. not to be too correct.
l've been walking around this train
asking people to draw on blank maps of the United States
the areas where they think people speak differently.
You want to write anything on it. you can.
What they sound like.
They don't just do dialect areas.
they identify those areas where they think
the least correct or the most correct English is spoken
and draw circles around them.
Nine times out of 1 0 when you ask people to do this
they go for either the U.S. South.
which is almost universally believed
to be a place where bad English is spoken.
or New York City.
But New Yorkers.
you're sure. they don't sound like Pennsylvanians. right?
WOMAN: They say ''wawdah.''
DENNlS: They say what?
WOMAN: ''Wawdah.''
DENNlS: ''Woodah?''
WOMAN: ''Wawdah.''
DENNlS: lnstead of. what do you say?
WOMAN: Water.
DENNlS: Water. well. that's what l say.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Americans are ambivalent about language.
They may think that New York and Southern accents
are bad English.
but they can also find them charming.
MAN: l like hearing people from the South.
DENNlS: Really? How come?
MAN: l just. l just like the way they talk.
l like to hear the way they talk.
MAN: Let's take race out of the equation.
DENNlS: Alright. OK.
MAN: lf we take race out of the equation.
if l go to a place in the South
where at least they are not overtly racist or whatever.
l would tend to feel comfortable around Southerners.
''Come on in here. honey.'' and that kind of thing.
Yeah. it makes me feel a little more...
but l mean. there's some places in the South.
me. as a black man. l wouldn't be caught dead in.
DENNlS: That's another story. yeah.
lt would make no difference how they sound.
MAN: Absolutely.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): l want to make a short stopover in Pittsburgh
because it shows how communities can cling to an accent
as a badge of identity and local pride.
l'm here to meet with a linguist who's been studying
her fellow Pittsburghers' idiosyncratic way with words.
She's Barbara Johnstone.
How would you describe the language of Pittsburgh?
BARBARA: People talk about something they call Pittsburghese.
They have this strong idea that there's a way of talking
that happens here and only here
or in this. in this part of Pennsylvania. in this area.
Here's a store that's got some interesting stuff.
Shirts here with Pittsburghese on them.
old Scotch-lrish words which you can still hear in Belfast.
ROBERT: That's a very unusual word for me.
First of all. what does it mean?
BARBARA: This is a way of spelling ''yins.''
which is the plural of ''you.''
ROBERT: Yeah.
BARBARA: lt's also often spelled with a ''Z'' at the end.
which reflects more how it sounds.
or sometimes with a ''U.'' ''yuns.''
ROBERT: Do you have any sense of where it came from?
BARBARA: Oh. yeah. it's actually a form of plural ''you''
that's found pretty widespread in Appalachia.
but often it's spelled more like ''youins.''
ROBERT: Youins.
ln the Burgh. the words ''in'' and ''out''
sound more like ''in'' and ''odd.''
''down'' and ''town'' sound like ''dahn'' and ''tahn.''
How would you say them?
Starting at the top.
MAN: Out.
ROBERT: Out.
MAN: Opposite of in.
Babushka: head scarf used for a bad hair day.
Blitzburgh: drinking town with a football team.
Chipped ham: thinly sliced ham sold only in the Burgh.
Dahntahn. That's where you're at now.
ROBERT: We're at now. yeah. OK.
MAN: Here's the greatest.
We don't want the lady to read this one.
lt's jagoff: anyone who pisses off a Pittsburgher.
ROBERT: What do you have to do to piss off a Pittsburgher?
MAN: Just tell him the Steelers suck.
That'll do it.
BARBARA: l think l've always been interested
in how people relate to places.
You often hear the claim these days
that in the context of globalization
and people moving around and places don't matter
in peoples' lives the way they used to.
and since l'm a linguist l've looked at this through language.
l've looked at how people use kind of shared ways of talking
and shared ideas about ways of talking
to connect themselves with places
and to connect themselves with other people and communities.
ROBERT: So Pittsburghers' fierce pride in their own speech
is a measure of the importance of place?
BARBARA: l think so.
This local accent
which is different from how people talk elsewhere
is available as a way of talking about place.
and all the while they're talking about who they are
and where they live and what it means to live here.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): ln a country full of linguistic variety.
there's one variety that everyone sees as the norm.
DENNlS: There's a great deal of agreement in a sort
of Ohio. Michigan. northern lndiana.
Wisconsin. Pennsylvania zone of normal English.
Even Southerners. for example. will reach right up
and draw that Midwestern area and say it's normal.
So this is. this is where you say
the kind of correct American English is spoken?
MAN: lt's without an accent or a twang.
SECOND MAN: But what's out here. what states?
MAN: Kansas. Missouri.
DENNlS: Kansas. Missouri. lowa. Nebraska.
MAN: lf you took a speech class.
l think that they would want you to speak
more like these people here.
DENNlS: Wisconsin. Michigan. Minnesota.
MAN: Wisconsin. Michigan. and l should add Ohio in there.
DENNlS: lt's in there.
So if you were studying to be an announcer or something
you think this is the....
MAN: This is what they would. this is--
that's the target.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Technically. the dialect area they're talking about
is called ''Midland.''
Midland is spoken in much of the Midwest.
For most Americans this is the yardstick.
the most normal and correct of all dialects.
And Americans are terribly concerned with correctness.
A lot of people are worried about the state of the language.
particularly the written language.
so much so that they've set up hotlines all over the country
where you can call if you have questions about correct grammar.
ln the last ten years or so
they've produced a directory of grammar hotlines
in the U.S. and Canada.
l think l'm going to pull over and call one.
Ulle Lewes manages the original hotline.
ULLE: We get calls from Canada.
We get calls from the United Nations.
We've gotten calls from many lawyers and law firms.
We've even gotten a call from the White House.
They would not say which branch.
ROBERT: l see.
May l ask you a question myself?
ULLE: Oh. certainly. go ahead.
ROBERT: ls it getting harder
to maintain the written standards
or the standards in the written language.
do you find?
ULLE: Yeah. we do have troubles with the grapholect.
ROBERT: What does that mean. grapholect?
ULLE: Well. dialect means the way we speak.
There are about 60 dialects of English on our planet.
Pakistan. Nigeria. you name it.
lf you think about it.
a person from Scotland with a brogue
might not be able to communicate
with a person from Texas with a drawl
or with a person from Nigeria with that very clipped speech.
but if we all keep to the same grapholect.
written rules. then we can still communicate.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Some linguists question whether the written standard
can guarantee universal understanding.
But that's an academic issue
in the practical world of newspapers.
America's main city papers
print millions of words of copy every day.
And every one of those words
will or should have been vetted by a copy editor
before the edition lands on your porch.
One of Ohio's leading papers is The Columbus Dispatch.
Kirk Arnott. assistant managing editor.
is the language watchdog.
KlRK: l'm a big believer
in informal and conversational language.
We should be as conversational as we can be
because we want to be as accessible as we can be.
l certainly don't want us to sound
like the paper was edited by a schoolmarm.
But somebody's got to keep the language
from sliding into the abyss.
Without policing. it will tend to slide away
from being a useful communication tool.
ROBERT: Give us some examples of things that you.
as the language cop. have to arrest before they get out.
KlRK: l see a lot of words that are just downright misused.
ROBERT: What would be some of those words
that you think are misused?
KlRK: ''lmportantly'' when all they mean to say is ''important.''
''more importantly.'' they say.
lmportantly. of course. means to act as though you are important.
''Nonplussed'' is another one.
The general attitude seems to be that it means ''unperturbed.''
when. in fact. it means ''bewildered.''
''Bemused'' is another one.
People seem to think it means ''amused''
rather than also bewildered or preoccupied.
Those are some of the ones that seem to be most common.
The people. people who work here
watch cable TV and listen to radio
and it just works its way into their heads.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Again the spoken is influencing the written.
and newspaper copy is being affected. or infected.
by the spoken journalism of radio and TV reporters.
Not because they are bad journalists.
KlRK: No. no.
ROBERT: But because their delivery
is discursive. colloquial spoken speech
and not written.
and it's a different discipline from writing.
KlRK: lt certainly is different. oh. yes.
You just have to know how to pronounce the words.
No offense.
ROBERT: l take none.
All over the country big-city newspapers work hard
to uphold standards for written English.
while the language we speak on the streets of our cities
is by its very nature changeable and shifting.
For decades Bill Labov and his colleagues
have been studying how Americans talk.
The result is a whole library of recorded voices
and a fascinating discovery.
lt's called the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.
Labov believes there is a revolutionary shift
in the pronunciation of short vowels
that have been relatively stable for a thousand years.
BlLL: What we're looking at
is this mass of cities around the Great Lakes.
Here we have Syracuse. Rochester. Buffalo.
and Cleveland. Detroit.
ROBERT: How many people is that?
BlLL: lt's about 34 million people.
This area used to be the closest to network pronunciation.
lt was what the NBC standard was based on.
and today it is moving further and further away.
ROBERT: Let's go into that in some detail.
Show us how that's happening.
BlLL: ln these experiments
we played first of all an individual word.
VOlCE.: . . . black.
And then people had to write down
what they thought they heard.
So you can do that yourself. What do you hear?
ROBERT: Black.
BlLL: Right. and then in another series they heard...
VOlCE.: . . . living on one block.
BlLL: Now what do you hear?
ROBERT: Block.
BlLL: Well. you've changed your mind and--
VOlCE.: . . . old senior citizens living on one block.
BlLL: This person is saying the word ''block''
the way they say ''black.''
ROBERT: The shift in this one vowel
seems to have a domino effect on the other four vowels.
and they all change. too.
The result can be serious misunderstandings.
BlLL: Now this is spectacular.
VOlCE.: . . . bosses.
BlLL: Everybody writes down what?
--Bosses. --Right. the guy.
ROBERT: Yeah.
VOlCE.: The bosses with the antennas.
BlLL: Now you begin to wonder what are these--
ROBERT: The bosses with the antennas.
VOlCE.: l can remember v aguely
when we had the busses with the antennas on the top.
ROBERT: So ''busses'' has become ''bosses.''
BlLL: Right.
And so this is very hard for most people to recognize.
ROBERT: So is it fair to say
that North Americans are. in different regions. are going.
growing further apart from each other linguistically?
BlLL: lt seems so. lt's hard to believe.
Everyone says to us
we all watch the same radio and television. how can that be?
lt's a very surprising finding.
ROBERT: ln the 1 960s. Detroit was the home of Motown.
Today there's a thriving hip hop scene.
Even the white crossover rapper Eminem
comes from the area called Eight Mile.
Inner-city Detroit is 82% African American,
but language can define you
just as much as the color of your skin.
At the main bus station we meet John Baugh.
a professor of linguistics
from Stanford University in California.
John joins us in Detroit
to demonstrate an experiment he's been conducting for years
about how Americans react to different accents.
lt's called linguistic profiling.
First he checks the rental housing section
in the city paper.
then he calls properties that are advertised for rent.
He calls first using an African American accent.
WOMAN: Can l help you?
JOHN: Yes. my name is Michael Davis.
l was calling to see if you might have any houses for rent
that might be available?
ROBERT: Then he calls again speaking with a Latino accent.
JOHN: Hello. this is Juan Ramirez.
l'm calling about the apartment
you have advertised in the paper.
Yes. alright.
ROBERT: Finally he calls
in a perfectly neutral American accent.
which is in fact how he really talks.
What kind of results have you been getting today?
JOHN: l've actually been getting some mixed results today
but generally speaking.
the minority dialects do not fare as well.
and particularly in the affluent communities.
ROBERT: ls that race or economic class?
JOHN: lt's both.
Race in and of itself will not be the factor
that excludes one from a particular neighborhood
or a house for sale in an affluent community.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Linguists like Baugh believe such prejudice
shows ignorance of black history and language.
That history is celebrated in this African American museum.
The stories of slavery and black English
are inextricably linked.
lt's often assumed by blacks. as well as whites.
that African Americans speak bad or lazy English.
ln fact. black English has roots as deep
and a grammar as consistent as Scottish. lrish.
or any other of the Englishes spoken around the world.
lt was the dreadful traffic in human lives
that brought English to the coast of Africa.
British and American slavers trading upriver
introduced the English language to the African middle men
from whom they bought the slaves.
Twenty years ago when we filmed our TV series
The Story of English.
we went to an upriver trading post in Sierra Leone.
Three hundred years ago. blacks and whites communicated
with a simplified English known as Pidgin.
JOHN: The contemporary African American dialects
all grew from the trade languages
that evolved from slavery.
[speaking Pidgin dialect]
JOHN: The language mixing that took place
between the African languages and English
on the west coast of Africa for trading purposes
still function today.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): This Anglo-African mixture
is still the lingua franca on this river.
River trade carried it down to the coast in slave depots.
This is Bunce lsland.
The ruins of an old slave fort still stand here.
To prevent revolts. traders made sure
the slaves penned up here spoke different languages.
To talk to each other
the slaves created their own pidgin.
So even before they left Africa.
they were speaking an English that was all their own.
JOHN: And so the slave factories
and these trading languages that you've illustrated here
are the very origins
of contemporary African American English.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Twenty years ago when we filmed
off the coast of South Carolina.
you could still hear the faint whispers of slave English.
On the islands of Kiowa. Edisto. Daufuskie. and Wadmalaw.
older people like Benjamin Blaggen
and his sister Janie Hunter
still spoke Gullah and Geechee.
BENJ AMlN: Give me the old-time religion.
Give me that old-time religion
Give me that old-time religion...
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): When rural Southern blacks
eventually moved to the cities of the North.
they brought their own kind of English with them.
They're young men now.
but 25 years ago Dwayne. Asheen. and Kihilee
were students at this school.
Situated in a prosperous. mostly white suburb of Ann Arbor.
there were not many black kids
at the Martin Luther King School.
When they spoke as they did at home
in African American English.
their teachers simply assumed they couldn't do school work.
ASHEEN: They sort of felt like we were unteachable in a sense.
how we'll fail. so it kind of made them
go towards other students more
and gave them a little bit more help than they would give us.
ROBERT: Can you remember some of the things that were said.
teachers would say?
ASHEEN: Actually. to be honest.
the teachers really didn't even communicate with us too much.
Just was sort of like a sense that we were on our own.
ROBERT: Do you remember any of that?
You were younger.
KlHlLEE: l was really young. but l mean. l remember enough
to know that l wasn't being treated the same way
as all the other kids in the class.
a lot of other kids. you know.
That's the irony of it all.
lt's Martin Luther King School.
and. you know. they haven't learned anything
from Martin Luther King--
well. hopefully they learned it.
but they didn't learn it back then.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Three mothers refused
to accept second best for their sons.
Annie. what was it that got you and other parents upset enough
to bring a lawsuit against the school?
ANNlE: My kids was tested and was tested
and was put into special ed classes.
And l felt like that they were not getting educated
and was not treated equally.
and l felt like that shouldn't be a barrier
because of the language to stop them from being educated.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Ruth Z weifler is a social worker
familiar with the housing project the boys came from.
Listening to Annie tell
how her son and his friends were failing at school.
she knew something was wrong.
RUTH: There were maybe 24 poor black children
in a sea of affluent white families.
and they really were having a very hard time.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Ruth became convinced
that the kids were being discriminated against
because of their African American English.
RUTH: Language is the marker for assumed attitudes.
Coming with an implied criticism.
which is what l think a black child carries with him.
we--as adults. as mainstream society. as Americans--
have really done bad by these little kids.
KEN: Hi. Ruth. how are you?
RUTH: How good to see you.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Unable to make any headway
with the school administrators.
Ruth went to Detroit.
One of the lawyers she consulted was Ken Lewis.
The legal strategy they and others thrashed out
led to a landmark court decision on black English.
KEN: Our job was to see
if we could come up with some legal theories that made sense
that we could pursue on their behalf.
The initial thrust of the case
was to deal with the children's poverty
as the reason why they were not being educated.
There was really no constitutional right
not to be poor in this country.
and so trying to find some constitutional provision
that would help us along those lines
was a futile effort.
so language became a part of it.
and since that language barrier seemed to impact adversely
only on black youngsters.
we were able to tie in the race issue.
JOHN: The most significant thing
that l believe was raised during that trial
was that you had a federal judge acknowledge formally
that African American Vernacular English
represented a significant linguistic barrier
to academic achievement and success.
He confirmed that the school district
was really insensitive to the linguistic background
of the vast majority of African American students
within the school district.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Years later. the argument Ken Lewis used
in this courthouse
was raised by educators in Oakland. California.
but they claimed black English. which they called ''Ebonics.''
was a separate language.
That caused a national storm. and as we'll see.
it's an issue school boards are still grappling with.
KEN: One of the things
that l remember Judge Joiner indicating in his opinion
was the need to help youngsters appreciate the difference
between the language of the majority.
how it would impact upon your being perceived by others.
That was part of the discussion we had to wrestle with
in the black English case.
because we thought that the teachers
were not respecting the language as it should have been.
ROBERT: lf a young black who talked like Puff Daddy
applied for a job in this law firm.
would he get it?
KEN: The reality is he has to fit the criteria.
the skills that are required for this particular job.
Just like if l wanted to go on to radio
and become the commentator for the R&B. rap. hip hop station.
l'm going to have to change my language skills
because l got a different audience l'm appealing to.
l'm wrestling with it now with my own 1 5-year-old.
who. you know. communicates to me
in language that l'm not necessarily sure l understand.
but l'm working on it.
l'm finding l'm coming full circle
with this thing called black English.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): This is the hip hop crew Athletic Mic League.
Some are college kids who can talk Standard American.
but among themselves they speak street talk.
ln language. as in music and fashion.
it's the street that influences the mainstream.
[rappers rapping]
WESLE Y: Everything follows the streets in America.
so whatever's going on there. it goes from here to here.
then eventually mainstream America.
which is. you know. which is white America.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Before they go on stage
the crew rehearse bits of their routine.
[rapping]
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Classic features of urban black English
include ''we going.'' instead of ''we are going.''
''he start.'' instead of ''he starts.''
and ''we be going'' for a habitual action.
[vocal percussion]
But another characteristic of black English
is its love of playing with words.
spinning new meanings out of words
like ''stacked.'' ''live.'' ''vibing.'' ''sick'' and ''ill.''
TRES: Coming down. l'm edgy
about what l'm about to walk into.
l hope the place is stacked.
l hope that the audience is live.
l hope when l step out this door
that they are ready and anxious. you know.
to hear us do what we gotta do.
They gonna feel us. are they gonna connect with us?
MC: Y'all gotta represent up here for the Mike League.
Y'all can't be back there.
TRES: We got to come out there confident.
For me it's almost on the borderline of being cocky.
get on stage and all of a sudden
you've got that connection. you're vibing.
Let me see you in that crowd
Put your hands up
lt's about to go down
Say ''A''
''M''
''L''
Say who. what. where. oh. stand up
WESLE Y: This whole game is based
on how ill you are. or how sick a cat can be.
Sometimes it's about finesse.
sometimes we're just on there spitting
and just trying to be raw as we can be on stage.
And so you have to rock as hard as you can. so you--
you're recognized as the best.
you got to look. listen. move.
and. yeah. really feel it.
and that's. that's when we. that's how we judge crowds.
Other people would judge a crowd different.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): These hip hop artists
draw on local street talk for their lyrics and poetry.
[rapping]
WESLE Y: We use the word ''nasty'' for everything.
When somebody was on stage and they were really. you know.
they were really gettin' off. they were rockin' the crowd.
it was like he was nasty. his flow was nasty.
[rapping]
TRES: We have a saying. ''pro nasty.''
professionally nasty.
lt means it's quality.
This is. this is not just good.
WESLE Y: That's our grade A. that's our professional grade.
TRES: lf you want the best and you want the top.
you want something from us that's pro nasty.
ROBERT MACNElL (VO ): Nasty. pro nasty. sick. and raw.
hip hop and rap are forcing new meanings into American English.
And if you've never heard these words
used like this before.
you probably will soon.
[rapping]
ANNOUNCER: Next time on ''Do You Speak American?''
mosey on down to the heart of the South.
MAN: Down home where l'm from.
Tennessee and Kentucky both claim me.
Tennessee claims l'm from Kentucky.
and Kentucky claims l'm from Tennessee.
ANNOUNCER: Here. you can sample some spicy Cajun...
or try some straight-shootin' Texas talk.
WOMAN: His pants was so tight. if he'd have farted
it would have blowed his boots off.
ANNOUNCER: So saddle on up.
lt's a journey like no other.
Next time on ''Do You Speak American?''
For the downlow. the skinny. and the 4-1 -1
on how you speak American.
visit us at pbs.org.
While you're there.
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