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May 18, 2005 - 'Do You Speak American?' - 2005-05-17

I'm Avi Arditti. Rosanne Skirble is away. This week on Wordmaster: "Do You Speak American?" That's the name of a new book by journalist Robert MacNeil. Mr. MacNeil -- who was born and raised in Canada -- explores how immigration, technology and other factors have changed the way Americans speak English.

The former television newscaster likes to use everyday experiences to illustrate the changes taking place. For instance, he says that when he and his wife -- both in their mid-70s -- go to New York City restaurants, they're often greeted by a waiter as "you guys," as in: "What'll you guys have?" Yet to be spoken to so casually might offend some people.

Robert MacNeil spoke with VOA's Keming Kuo about the challenges that English presents to its users worldwide.

ROBERT MacNEIL: "The English language, to anybody who is trying to learn it from the outside and not from birth, is a devil of a language, with all sorts of nuances. For instance, a hotel in Egypt which put up a sign saying: "Clients need have no anxiety about the water; it has all been passed by the management.' You see, to an American or a native English speaker, that is hilarious because it suggests that it's passed through the body of the manager. No native speaker of English would make that mistake. Otherwise, it was a perfectly grammatical sign."

Robert MacNeil says one reason American English became such a nuanced, and sometimes difficult, language is that it was shaped by the country's rapidly changing demographics.

ROBERT MacNEIL: "So much of the English vocabulary comes from immigration, first of all to Britain going back 1500 years, but then, in the last couple centuries, to the United States. And much of our American vocabulary comes from German or Yiddish or Italian or Dutch or Irish or Scandinavian -- all those sources of immigration. And certainly an awful lots of words from Spanish, because the Mexicans owned and lived in what is now a large part of Southwestern United States."

Mr. MacNeil points out that the United States is a restless, mobile society, with about one-seventh of its residents moving every year. He says those moves from rural to suburban and urban areas created peer pressure for many young people to adopt "inner city lingo" as part of their speech.

ROBERT MacNEIL: "Partly it's explained by one sociolinguist in our book as a way for young, white males, teenage males, in the suburbs -- where they grow up feeling kind of safe and everything -- to borrow some of the overt masculinity of blacks living in the inner cities, where they at least appear to know how to look after themselves, they know how to deal with women, they're familiar with weapons and all that sort of thing. And that has a huge appeal to adolescent white Americans."

In his new book, "Do You Speak American?", Robert MacNeil addresses those who bemoan what they consider the decline of English in America.

ROBERT MacNEIL: "The desire of some people, going back to the 17th century in Britain, to police the language because they want to control it, and they think it's getting messy. People like Daniel Defoe, the author of 'Robinson Crusoe,' and Jonathan Swift, the author of 'Gulliver's Travels,' were among those who thought that the language had gotten out of hand during Shakespeare's time and needed to be guarded from too much innovation. Daniel Defoe, believe it or not, wanted it to be as serious a crime to coin your own new word as it would be to counterfeit money."

Mr. MacNeil says schools are criticized for abandoning strict grammatical discipline, and the media are criticized for using so much informal or non-standard speech.

ROBERT MacNEIL: "This is not as strict a country, as strict to observe certain standards, as it used to be. And the language reflects all that. It's also become a society which partly through the force of law -- laws against racism and so on -- has become a good deal more tolerant of races, of other people, of different people. And more tolerant of people who are fat, who are tall, who are disabled in some way. And the language reflects that."

Twenty years ago, Robert MacNeil first explored changes in the English language in his book "The Story of English." Looking toward the next 20 years, he says there will be additional changes to English in America, with technology playing a major role.

And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is, and our segments are all online at I'm Avi Arditti.