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Do You Speak American? by Robert MacNeil
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Do You Speak American? (2005)

by Robert MacNeil, William Cran

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A survey of the way English is spoken around the United States, and of the issues raised by the differences in speech between various regions and various social groups. The book focusses much less on specific differences than on broader issues -- the Hispanic influence, Black English, prescriptive vs. evolutionary views of language -- and is well worth reading. ( )
  annbury | Sep 5, 2010 |
This book was written as a "companion" to the PBS series of the same name. As a linguistics teacher, I have shown that series in my classes several times, so that probably coloured my reading of this book a little. Some of the writing comes so verbatim from the series that I could hear MacNeil's voice in my head as I was reading. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was quite a bit of information in the book that was not covered in the series. The same format is followed where the authors start in the northeast and explain language changes towards the south and then west, but each chapter has a bit more in-depth information than was shown on TV, and the last chapter on computer language presents quite a bit of new material.

This book is primarily written for a lay audience, which is great in its way. However, linguists hoping to use this as a teaching resource should keep that in mind. This book introduces some linguistic terminology, but only briefly, so it is no replacement for other texts on sociolinguistics, and would really only be appropriate as assigned reading in an introductory classroom. I do wish I had had it as a reference when showing the series in my classes, as it would have been nice to have some of the extra info to contribute to lectures about the series.

Another downside, of both the series and the book, is that there is not a lot of focus on the plains and Rocky Mountain regions of the U.S. There seems to be an assumption that the most interesting changes going on linguistically in the west happen in California, and that there is a lot of homogeneity in the rest of the western half of the country. Having taught in Indiana, where my students were very much able to distinguish Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Dakotas accents from their own midwestern dialects and interested in how those differences got to be there, it would have been nice to have a bit more focus on the distinctions in that part of the country.

The book also concentrates primarily on racial and ethnic variation and not so much on gender, age, or other kinds of variation. This thus lends a bit of a heavy feel to the text, as so many of the issues dealt with highlight the negative consequences of linguistic stereotyping and the state of race relations in the U.S. today. These are important issues to talk about, but without being balanced out by positive messages about what linguistic diversity allows people to accomplish culturally, they can become overwhelming.

Finally, both the book and series were shorter and less in depth than the authors' previous collaboration, "The Story of English." Fans of that endeavour may be slightly disappointed to find that this project is a little more narrow in the scope of things it covers (out of all the possible things it could cover, not just because American English is necessarily less broad a topic than world Englishes) and a bit more quotidian in its approach. This is the kind of book I might recommend to someone who asks me what it is a linguist does, or why people talk so differently; however, though this is not necessarily a bad thing, anyone who wants to have a more serious look at these issues will leave wanting a little something more. ( )
4 vote quaintlittlehead | Nov 1, 2009 |
An easy read, but not a particularly enlightening one. I've taken just enough linguistics (in college) and read just enough pop linguistics that this book didn't have much new to say to me. Yeah, there are prescriptivists and descriptivists. Yeah, people in Brooklyn sound different than people in California.

There were a few moments of interest, but nothing striking enough that I remember even a stray particular fact. When the authors delve into modern discussion of slang (especially teenage), they manage to sound like hopeless squares, despite their gormless, eager efforts to sound liberal-minded and in the know. ( )
4 vote lyzadanger | Jun 27, 2007 |
Very interesting book for language lovers based on the PBS series done by the authors, who also wrote "The Story of English." ( )
  sunnydale | Oct 3, 2006 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Robert MacNeilprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cran, Williammain authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385511981, Hardcover)

Is American English in decline? Are regional dialects dying out? Is there a difference between men and women in how they adapt to linguistic variations?

These questions, and more, about our language catapulted Robert MacNeil and William Cran—the authors (with Robert McCrum) of the language classic The Story of English—across the country in search of the answers. Do You Speak American? is the tale of their discoveries, which provocatively show how the standard for American English—if a standard exists—is changing quickly and dramatically.

On a journey that takes them from the Northeast, through Appalachia and the Deep South, and west to California, the authors observe everyday verbal interactions and in a host of interviews with native speakers glean the linguistic quirks and traditions characteristic of each area. While examining the histories and controversies surrounding both written and spoken American English, they address anxieties and assumptions that, when explored, are highly emotional, such as the growing influence of Spanish as a threat to American English and the special treatment of African-American vernacular English. And, challenging the purists who think grammatical standards are in serious deterioration and that media saturation of our culture is homogenizing our speech, they surprise us with unpredictable responses.

With insight and wit, MacNeil and Cran bring us a compelling book that is at once a celebration and a potent study of our singular language.


Each wave of immigration has brought new words to enrich the American language. Do you recognize the origin of


1. blunderbuss, sleigh, stoop, coleslaw, boss, waffle?

Or

2. dumb, ouch, shyster, check, kaput, scram, bummer?

Or

3. phooey, pastrami, glitch, kibbitz, schnozzle?

Or

4. broccoli, espresso, pizza, pasta, macaroni, radio?

Or

5. smithereens, lollapalooza, speakeasy, hooligan?

Or

6. vamoose, chaps, stampede, mustang, ranch, corral?











1. Dutch 2. German 3. Yiddish 4. Italian 5. Irish 6. Spanish

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:03:32 -0400)

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