American English, an ever-changing language

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Most Americans should be aware by now that our language is forever going through changes thanks to the dynamic, pulsing society in which we live. It is a global tongue surpassing ancient Latin and modern French. All these differences are documented in a book by Robert MacNeil and William Cran, Do You Speak American? copyrighted in 2005.

As a retired teacher always fussy about grammar and spelling, it almost shocks me to learn how much our language has evolved thanks especially to the influence of immigrants as well as international commerce. Linguistics, the scientific study of language, has revealed the results of the interaction of language and society over the years. There is also the pressure on language as a result of modern technology and the needs of global business. Those robots need to understand us.

One of the things I learned from the book as well as experience in the classroom is that American English is filled with different dialects. People in different parts of the country have their own vernacular and accents especially thanks to racial and ethnic diversity. Here are a few examples of American English words that come from different cultures: sleigh, coleslaw, waffle (Dutch); dumb, ouch, kaput (German); pastrami, kibbitz, glitch (Yiddish); broccoli, espresso, radio (Italian); smithereens, speakeasy, hooligan (Irish); vamoose, mustang, corral (Spanish).

We can take a lesson from the Romans when it comes to preserving our original English language from Great Britain. The Romans had armed camps on the outskirts of their empire to protect their civilization from barbarians. It did not work, as the empire was overrun, and Latin evolved into separate Romance languages. We are fortunate that we have modern communication technology to prevent our language from slipping away.

While we cannot change all the different spoken dialects of English, we can preserve the way we write. For example, I am always aware of the misuse of “like” and “as.” They are not interchangeable. “Like” is a preposition: “He looks like his father.” The word “as” is a conjunction: “She cooks as her mother did.” We can replace “as” with “the same way.” It may be informal but not totally ungrammatical to say, “Like I said … ” 

One of the tools my English teachers and I used to protect grammar from abuse was the sentence diagram. Every part of speech in the sentence could be demonstrated with the use of those distinct lines. So we did not, for example, confuse verbs with nouns. I am a firm advocate for such structured teaching of modern English just for the sake of preserving the basic language of our literature, government and history. We can still enjoy informal speech while protecting the mother tongue. 

Gloria C. Endres