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American Speech 79.3 (2004) 328-333

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Lexicon and American Culture

West Virginia University
How We Talk: American Regional English Today By Allan A. Metcalf Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Pp. xvi + 206.

Allan Metcalf has written four books focused on the cultural orientation of lexical items. In 1997, he coauthored with David K. Barnhart America in So Many Words, which provides yearly examples of influential words from 1750 through 1997. In 1999, Metcalf authored The World in So Many Words, which looks to countries around the world for the origins of English words. In 2002, [End Page 328] Metcalf authored Predicting New Words, which analyzes the success of coined terms according to his FUDGE factors.

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Figure 1
Number of Pages per Chapter

Metcalf's third book in this lexical parade is How We Talk: American Regional English Today, published in 2000. This book contains an introduction, three foundational chapters ("The South," "The North," "The West") with subsections, three supporting chapters ("American Ethnic," "In The Movies," "Dialects 2100"), and two indexes (word, subject). The three regional chapters comprise 52% of the pages (as shown in fig. 1). The jacket design displays U.S. flag symbolism, except instead of stars, quote marks cover the field of blue. This image is an appropriate metaphor for the book: Metcalf quotes from the distinctive aspects of the United States conversation.

In his introduction, Metcalf delves into language variation and its social affiliations. As throughout the rest of the text, the explanations of meanings and pronunciation are not overly technical, and this approach is valuable for the targeted popular audience. He pitches the concept of shared vocabulary and pronunciation as the basis for American English, in contrast to English of other nations. Yet rather than comparing American English with other English varieties, Metcalf remains squarely within the goal of describing the vocabulary, and to some extent pronunciation, unique to the U.S. regions. In part, Metcalf fulfills this goal by overtly recognizing the research on U.S. dialects, a welcome exposure of scholars and scholarship to the general public.

As Metcalf outlines the sections of the book by assessing how many varieties of American English exist, he attempts to elucidate two important concepts, GENERAL AMERICAN and STYLE-SHIFTING (specifically on the continuum of formality). For nonlinguists, this discussion fits exceedingly [End Page 329] well with their most rooted assumptions about language: General American is defined as the residue and common core of all varieties and thus is "neutral speech." Metcalf notes that General American has an accent, but not one that regionally identifies itself. He furthers this concept of General American by objectifying it metaphorically as clothing: "Many of us are able to put it on and take it off like business clothes" (x). Perhaps in the future this reviewer may embrace such a metaphor, but for now I side with Lippi-Green (1997, 45) in stringently rejecting the dialect-as-clothing metaphor for its substantial misrepresentation of how language works. From introductory linguistics classes to the Ebonics controversy, versions of this incongruous metaphor have led many people to logically indefensible conclusions.

Within the chapter on the South, as with the following chapters, Metcalf begins with some introductory material, a sounds-of-the-region section, and a words-of-the-region section. These pan-regional sections cover core features that cannot be locally grouped. For the South, Metcalf first tackles the story of Pure Elizabethan English. For "Sounds of the South," he describes the classic language variation patterns of /ay/ ungliding, front-lax merger, /r/ vocalization, yod insertion (e.g., <news> [nyuz]), and /U/-fronting. In this kind of section, Metcalf includes both visual aids, such as dialectological maps and local advertisements displaying the variants, and the research findings of language scholars, such as Erik Thomas for /U/-fronting. This combination of scholarship and mixed formats works well for the book's audience and eschews any potential monotony in the presentation. For "Words of the South," Metcalf shoulders the nuances of y'all, hey, fixin' to, double modals, and a gaggle of other regionally identifiable words...


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pp. 328-333
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2005
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