Thursday, November 17, 2016

A divided America--linguistically

One of my favorite activities is to sit with a cup of coffee at the café in our local Barnes and Noble and look at three to four new books that look interesting. Usually, by reading the opening page, I can tell whether I want to continue.

Last week, I happened on a glossy book, intended mainly for non-readers since it is filled with colorful charts and maps; it's what used to be called a coffee-table book: Speaking American by Josh Katz, who surveys several dozen words and expressions used in various ways in the U.S.  Of course, it is a fascinating topic for someone like me.

Some of the words pronounced differently in various regions are interesting for writers, especially poets concerned with sound (rhyme): "syrup" is pronounced "sir-up" by 53% of the population, we learn, whereas  36% say "seer-up." This despite many decades of TV and radio ads with their mainstream pronunciation.  Regional differences do not die out very easily.

How do you say "route"?  We seem about evenly divided, according to Katz's research, between saying "rowt" and "root."  Oddly, he doesn't include the word roof, which has a variant pronunciation.

If the Brits have take-away food, most of us say "take out" while "carry out" is used in some parts of the Midwest.

"Skillet" is regional (Northeast mainly), as is the use of "sneakers" instead of tennis shoes.  In Chicago, you might hear "gym shoes."  (Frying pan is much more widespread than "skillet.")

Which is right?  Wrong question!  In matters of usage, there is no right or wrong; the sources from  which Katz draws in his book merely record or describe what we say in this country. Of course, writers creating dialogue might be aware that their own regional usage (should we use garbage, trash, rubbish, refuse, or waste?) will impact readers in different ways.  "You guys" is preferred by 50% of Americans in contrast to "you all" (10%) and "y'all" (28%) or simply "you" (10%)

I enjoyed looking at this book, reminding myself that we are divided not only into bitter political camps, especially following the recent surreal election; but, on a lighter note, by the way we speak, which proves again the adage (applied originally to the linguistic divide between Britain and the U.S.): we are divided by a common language.

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