Book: Do You Speak American? (Robert MacNeil and William Cran)
If you grew up in a place like Buffalo and have ever traveled to any place outside of Buffalo, you’re familiar with the following exchange:
“Yeah, I’ll have a slice of pizza and a large pop.”
“A large what?”
“A glass of pop.”
“Oh, you mean soda.”
Ahh, but we actually mean “pop” when we say “pop”. And half the time, the other guy will persist in his ignorance, like he can’t seem to decipher what you mean by “pop”, even given ample context clues, and will look at you with the kind of cross-eyed expression that would normally meet a request for a “large Tinker-Splat” or a “medium Googlehoffer”. Given the opposite situation, it’s not like we “pop” speakers would greet a request for a soda with a box of Arm & Hammer, you know?
Anyhoo, this diversion into territorial linguistics is part of what makes a book like “Do You Speak American?” so fascinating. MacNeil and Cran cut a pretty wide swath here, delving into the evolution and modernization of the American English language, as well as issues like regional dialects, the assimilation of the Spanish language into the melting pot, and whether it’s now okay to say “between you and I” (errgh, no, it’s really not).
Among other things, it let me know that the folks in Ohio are my brothers in “pop”.
The topic-hopping can appear a bit scattered at times, and the final chapter on pairing language with computers is a dreadfully boring way to end the book. But it winds up being a rather fascinating exploration of the pliability of the “American” language.
As a word of warning, this book wants to embarrass you at work. It just does. It spends a good two to three chapters dealing with matters of regional pronunciation, and while you may actively resist the urge to sound out the vowels in the word “caught”, you’re eventually going to succumb, and the end result is you reciting your “ay eee, eye, oh, yew” sounds in the break room while everyone else turns and stares. There were times I must’ve resembled Will Ferrell in Elf, repeating “Francisco” over and over.