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American Talk: The Words And Ways Of American Dialects

May 2024
1min read

by Robert Hendrickson; Viking; 230 pages; $18.95.

Conventional wisdom to the contrary, American speech is not becoming homogenized into the accents of the evening network news, according to the author of this cheerful, pleasantly opinionated book. As immigrant English smoothes out through the generations into standard American speech patterns, new arrivals keep refreshing the language with their words, expressions, and accents. Los Angeles courtrooms, for instance, today provide interpreters for eighty languages. Also we have no national movement, such as the French do, to keep our speech untainted by alien influences. (A French company was recently sued by the Ministry of Culture for calling a new product “Ie fast drink.”) Examples of foreign words we have welcomed are far-ranging: kiwi comes from the Maori, for instance; lemming from the Laplanders; kayak from the Inuit.

Separate chapters take up Boston or New England talk, considered the “purest” English in the country; New York talk, which means Brooklynese to most people; “South Mouth,” which Hendrickson considers the most charming of all American dialect groups; mountain or hillbilly talk; black English, including “plantation Creole,” a kind of pidgin devised to communicate with slaves newly arrived from different African countries; “ferhoodled English” (Pennsylvania Dutch talk); and “da kine” talk, or Hawaiian pidgin. The book carries its considerable scholarship lightly, and Hendrickson’s glossaries and examples intrigue the mind and delight the ear.

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