Speaking American

2 Apr

My mom just sent me two jackets in the mail (which she bought for a total of $35–my mom is the primo shopper) along with a clipping of Katie Haegele’s book review of Do You Speak American?, a new book about language in America, from the Philadelphia Inquirer (March 21, 2005).

Of course, my mom, a born-and-bred Philadelphian, highlighted this passage:

The story begins, in a sense, in Philadelphia. “It is possible that Philadelphia shaped American speech more than any other city,” [the authors] claim, since it’s the only East Coast city to originally pronounce its r’s. (Think of New York, Boston, Richmond and Charleston pronunciations of Harvard to see what they mean.) Go, Philly.

The book sounds fascinating, and yes, Mom, I do want it for my birthday. I’ll spend the intervening months reading the prequel, The Story of English.

But I have to respond to Haegele’s assessment of language prescriptivists. She writes, “Grammar prescriptivists…think the language is going to hell in a hand basket.”

I respectfully disagree. As a prescriptivist myself, I’m of the opinion that reference books–dictionaries and style manuals, especially (yes, Chicago 15, I’m talking about you)–should actually tell us what’s right. So many of our authors and fellow editors at String Letter are absolutely befuddled about what correct usage is. Descriptivist grammarians, linguists, and editors record the language as it’s actually used, warts and all. Their advice is often, “X is acceptable, so is Y, so is Z, but those pesky prescriptivists will think you’re an idiot if you say W (although we think that’s fine, too).” (Of course, I’m exaggerating to make the point.) This leaves the thoughtful writer, editor, or student trying to finish a term paper with no clearer idea of the answer to their question, which generally is some form of “Is what I’ve just written right or wrong?,” than they did before they opened the reference. Ultimately, I fear it will make them wonder if the reference is work the shelf space it takes up, let alone the $55 price tag.

American English is a pretty unruly language. With so many regional dialects, ethnic dialects (one interesting point Haegele mentions from the book is that Black English in American is much more standard across the country than white English), and the very nature of our country as the place where people from all countries can find refuge and, dare I say it in these times, a home, our language is constanly in flux. But it’s my opinion that those of us who chose to protect and preserve our language as a profession should be better disciplinarians rather than letting it run quite so amok. Perhaps that’s the true difference, prescriptivists want to protect and preserve the language where as descriptivists just want to observe and record it.

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