Viewers far and wide of Do You Speak American?, the television series airing this month on PBS, will be inspired to buy this companion volume in order to read it without any clothes on. Bostonians will peruse it stack naked; New Yorkers can enjoy it stock naked; and Georgians are sure to breeze through it stalk naked. The co-authors have traveled high and low in every sense of those words across the United States: up into the hills of Appalachia and the halls of ivy; Down East along the Maine coast, down into San Fernando Valley, and down, down, down, into the glorious swamp of pop lyrics. Their objective: to catalogue the unhemmed latitude of American popular speech that Walt Whitman celebrated 150 years ago as the genius of our nation. MacNeil and Cran begin their journey on a battleground of ideas, fought over by advocates of two opposing linguistic theories. The prescriptivists worry about the decline of proper English usage (and civilization along with it) in the United States. They wish to preserve fine writing and elegant speech, to uphold a morality of language in short, to prescribe to Americans how they should speak American. The descriptivists are blither spirits by far, content to look around and listen and learn how Americans are actually writing and speaking, and then report in full on those unruly goings-on.
MacNeil and Cran make it abundantly clear that, however much linguistic researchers may hope to pin down Spanglish or Ebonics, Americans (particularly minority groups) are always way ahead of them, changing the language from day to day. In the course of his interview for the PBS series (transcribed in the book), even John Simon, the most outspoken elitist critic of the American language, cannot help speaking in run-on sentences that sound deliciously low (as Henry Higgins would have remarked). This irony will probably be lost on the TV screen, but it's stock naked on the page. Michael Alec Rose is a professor at Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music.