January 05, 2005

Language has been on my mind a whole lot these past couple of days (I mean, it's always on my mind, to varying degrees, but especially right now). Just yesterday I spent most of the afternoon online, reading about the variations of anglophone dialects across the U.S. and Canada. (See the Philly link below.) I found surprisingly little in-depth work on the topic, just bits and pieces on newsgroups, bulletin boards, and blogs. Until late that evening, I really had no idea that PBS would be airing a special tonight (called Do You Speak American?) dealing with these issues, a kind of state of the union address on American speech.

Of course I watched. I expected to hate it -- I'm a left-leaning person, values-wise, but even I get sickened by the spineless liberal claptrap PBS doles out so its core audience (i.e. "viewers like you") will keep the donations coming. And I did hate it, much more than I anticipated.

The gist, quickly: Robert MacNeil (a transplanted Maritimer who long ago took accent-reduction lessons to further his Stateside career as a theater-actor-cum-broadcast-journalist) travels the United States to find out how people talk. Then he gets some linguistic anthropologists and other language experts to discuss the hows, whens, and whys. The trip begins in Maine and basically does a U-curve along the sides and bottom of the U.S., briefly touching on the Midwest.

MacNeil aims not just to discuss phonetics, but on slang, neologisms, and the ever-increasing cultural influence Latino and black Americans have on "white" culture. He also challenges the idea that Hollywood and the news media (as well as easy access to the outside world via transportation and communication) have diluted people's regional accents. Here's where I start yelling at the TV.

1) The people MacNeil and his experts speak to in rural/non-cosmopolitan areas like Maine and the Louisiana bayou are mostly senior citizens. It's acknowledged that the way they talk is dying out, or is part of a very small, insular enclave. That these dialects still exist is a fun, if oft-flogged, fact of studies like MacNeil's, but Do You Speak American? is supposed to address how America speaks now, not 75 years ago. If a stop in the Carolinas only covers a very distinct pidgin dialect particular to a remote island or two off the coast, where does that leave the thousands upon thousands of Carolinians who don't speak that way? Surely they haven't all leveled off to perfect Standard American English (and especially not if, as MacNeil claims, media has absolutely no influence on us stubborn Amurricans). (To be fair, some modern younguns are interviewed in Nashville, which is apparently the only metropolitan area in the whole South. And one of the guys is from fucking OREGON.) (Hey, what about New Orleans, where French, Creole, Spanish, Portuguese, and arcane Southern Black dialects infiltrate an accent that's startlingly Brooklynese? No mention of this.)

2) If they're not senior citizens, they're agricultural workers and such, blue-collar people who probably haven't been real well educated (I'm not passing judgment on their intelligence, just assuming that they might not spend a lot of time around academics or media-savvy types). Or kids who don't know better. The only intellectuals who are profiled AT ALL in this special are the sociologists and filmmakers and software developers that make up MacNeil's body of language experts. Actually, forget about intellectuals, how about just regular normal people who don't have thick, cartoonish, regional accents -- people who have seemingly standardish accents with a touch of local coloration?

3) So little time is given to each region (or state) (or city) that the issue of multiple/overlapping accents is completely ignored. Interestingly, no one said a peep about New York State, except (a) in an introductory explanation of how Britain's open-jawed "r" sound (ahhhhh) became a mark of aristocracy in early NYC, and (b) in a round of "man on the street"-style interviews where a train full of applepiebaseball Midwesterners decides New Yorkers have one of the ugliest accents in the country. Well, New York State begins about 100 miles west of Buffalo and keeps on going all the way to the far eastern end of Long Island. There are MANY dialects represented: Canadian, German, Polish, Slavic, Scandinavian, Dutch, Italian, and we haven't even reached Binghamton yet, never mind NYC. Whatever MacNeil and his cronies say regarding NYC-speak is based on a perceived assumption that New Yorkers really DO talk that way, toidy-toid and all, and that despite the city being a melting pot for over eight million people from every ethnicity, geographic origin, age, persuasion, lifestyle, occupation, and economic circumstance, EVERYONE HERE TALKS LIKE BUGS FUCKING BUNNY, AND LET'S JUST WASH OVER JERSEY ENTIRELY BECAUSE WE'RE SHORT ON TIME AND TONY SOPRANO BLAH BLAH.

4) These same "man on the street" interviewees all conclude that the Midwest is the national hub of The Right Way To Speak, and once again because this is the received wisdom, it's never really challenged except for a quick aside that The Right Way To Speak is creeping farther west. I think two things are pretty pertinent here, and neither ever comes up: (a) the Midwest is full of transplanted Europeans who still cling to their accents decades later, ja, doncha knaw, (b) this actually does influence the way people there speak, to an alarming degree, (c) the contemporary SAE broadcaster dialect is not only based somewhere in that vague American west, it's actually a product of the speech patterns in southwestern Canada (where, unlike the Canucks back east, very few people say "oat and aboat" or "ewt and abewt," and in fact, Vancouver, B.C. is the second-largest production center for TV and radio advertising in North America, constantly catering to clients from U.S. markets) (also, Peter Jennings and Brian Williams hail from the area, and it hasn't hindered their careers any).

5) California, like New York State, is a big parcel of land with MANY accents. According to Do You Speak American?, the only one of any consequence is the SoCal surfer/skater/valley girl lingo (although technically, MacNeil's vals are at a high school in Irvine) (his expert in this segment is Clueless director Amy Heckerling, who grew up in the Bronx and still talks like she's Amy from da block). Like, rad, dude. There's some talk of Ebonics, but aside from local politics and a smidgen of politically motivated progressive education, it's not an issue that's specific to Californians -- after all, black people don't speak Californian, they speak BLACK!

6) I was amused when MacNeil proposed a hypothetical situation wherein a hip-hopper, any ol' hip-hopper oh i dunno let's pull a name outta thin air, how about PUFF DADDY (sic) goes for a job interview (presumably competing with non- hip-hoppers who've mastered mainstream American bizspeak English). (Cuz it's not like Diddy himself has any business skills or spends any time hobnobbing with successful whitefolk preppy types.)

7) Apparently, the only Hispanics in the U.S. are Mexicans, and they're all illegal aliens with no desire to learn a language other than their own. (Imagine this sentiment translated into pandering-PBS-liberal with the basic crux of it intact.) So, okay, American English has an obvious influence on Chicano-speak and possibly vice versa, but 3,000 miles to the east, there's this thing called a Nuyorican accent. "Nuyorican" refers to first-generation Puerto Rican Americans in New York City. (You might also include Dominicans, the other major Latino population here.) As I hear it, they've adapted certain Brooklyn Italian idiosyncrasies (for which there's actually a pretty clear-cut gender divide; see Saturday Night Fever to watch this in action), added Puerto Rican to the mix, and gave this new hybrid-dialect to New York. Nuyorican is one of the only New York accents -- relative to a community of recent immigrants -- that's unmistakably a New York accent. (Nota bene: The African-American NYC accent isn't too different, esp. among girls. Just take out some of the Latino inflections and idioms.)

8) The only thing I really liked in this doc was some 20-year-old interview footage with the Surf Punks, and MacNeil didn't get it back then, either. Dude.


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