Thursday, December 20, 2012

Speaking American Review

Speaking American by Richard W. Bailey

(from the book jacket)
When did English become American? What distinctive qualities made it American?  What role have American’s democratizing impulses, and its vibrantly heterogeneous speakers, played in shaping our language and separating it from the mother tongue?

A wide-ranging account of American English, Richard Bailey’s Speaking American investigates the history and continuing evolution of our language from the sixteenth century to the present.  The book is organized in half-century segments around influential centers: Chesapeake Bay (1600-1650), Boston (1650-1700), Charleston (1700-1750), Philadelphia (1750-1800), New Orleans (1800-1850), New York (1850-1900), Chicago (1900-1950), Los Angeles (1950-2000), and Cyberspace (2000-present).  Each of these places has added new words, new inflections, new ways of speaking to the elusive, boisterous, ever-changing linguistic experiment that is American English.  Freed from British constraints of unity and propriety, swept up in rabid social change, restless movement, and a thirst for innovation, Americans have always been eager to invent new words, from earthy frontier expressions like catawampously (vigorously) and bung-nipper (pickpocket), to the West African words introduced by slaves such as goober (peanut) and gumbo (okra), to the urban slang such as tagging (spraying graffiti) and crew (gang).  Throughout, Bailey focuses on how people speak and how speakers change the language.  The book is filled with transcripts of arresting voices, precisely situated in time and space: two justices of the peace sitting in a pumpkin patch trying an Indian for theft; a crowd of Africans lounging on the waterfront in Philadelphia discussing the newly independent nation in their home languages; a Chicago gangster complaining that his pocket had been picked; Valley girls chattering; Crips and Bloods negotiating their gang identities in L.A.; and more.

Speaking American explores – and celebrates – the endless variety and remarkable inventiveness that have always been at the heart of American English.

Bailey takes us on a tour through time and space, stopping at each location for fifty years as he comes forward in time explaining how American English came about.  You get a look at how the different populations that came to American influenced the language in the places they chose to settle down.  It is interesting to see the language shift and change and to learn how some words came to be included in the evolving language.  But I wouldn’t say that this is a very readable book.  Bailey really knew his stuff and you can see the time and research that went into the book.  I can appreciate the love he has for his topic but I never felt it myself.  So at times this book got a little dry and slow.  I’m not a student of the subject so maybe I’m the wrong audience for this book.  Because for me, with a more casual interest, I would like something a little less scholarly sounding.

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