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222Reviews Douglas A. Kibbee Department of French University of Illinois * * * Kenneth G. Wilson. Van Winkle's Return: Change in American English, 1966-1986. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1987. xii + 193 pp. Cloth ed. $18.00; paper ed. $10.95. Though it may not be apparent from the sub-title, Kenneth Wilson's book about change in American English is, at its core, a book about dictionaries. The title evokes Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle, who went to sleep in the American colonies and awoke after twenty years to find himself in the United States; Wilson's dormant years were those spent away from the classroom as a university administrator. A teacher once again, he found himself comparing the English of a new generation of students with the language he recollected from 1965 (including, presumably, that of the present reviewer, who had been among them). To pursue the comparison, he turned to his old desk dictionaries of the '50s and '60s and to the new desk dictionaries of the '80s to see how these books would illuminate the changes he noticed. Wilson's earlier esteem for dictionaries led to a valuable reader, now out of print, that he wrote and edited with two of his graduate students: Harbrace Guide to Dictionaries (Kenneth G. Wilson, R. H. Hendrickson, and Peter Alan Taylor). In the introduction to that work, Wilson declared that "dictionaries are the most important and useful guides to the language we have" (x), and the quarter century since then has not changed his mind. (He does, however, give the impression that he disapproves of the zero-relative in such clauses, and there is an apology to those readers of his present book "who find which in place of that (or no relative at all) unpleasant or worse" [147].) The present-day Wilson, who is tempted to write "the most important and useful guides to the language that we have," looks self-consciously at his new generation of students and at his younger self before he bedded down with only the dismal sounds of "the flatulent prose of many of my Reviews223 academic colleagues" (5) to punctuate his dreams. Written in a frequently valedictory tone, his linguistic memoir is "not for a scholarly audience but for lay people who are curious about their language, for amateurs of language who love the stuff" (6). In examining his newly purchased dictionaries, he found them remarkably similar in appearance, and three of the "top four" in 1981 "were being sold in red cloth hardcovers with gold lettering, bright red dust jackets with white lettering, and prices within one dollar of each other" (25). He noticed that the average life between editions of these major desk dictionaries had also shortened from about twelve years at the time of his "departure" to between six and seven years today. The increased pace of revising and re-editing, he notes, reflects the competition in the marketplace for both currency and novelty; dictionaries are more distinct from one another than automobiles, but the similarities between the two products in planned innovation (and forced obsolescence) strike him as apt. Wilson's observations (confirmed with the assistance of dictionaries) suggest that the young generation is less formal, less inhibited (or more vulgar, in the view of the old) about "adult" matters (i.e., those concerned with sexual activity), and less tolerant of and less likely to use ethnopaulisms (i.e., derisive terms for racial and ethnic groups). The students he now teaches at the University of Connecticut are less "regional," at least in the sort of usage identified as characteristic of his area in the Linguistic Atlas of New England. Suburban towns and rural areas appear to him to have yielded to standardization and hypercorrection; the distinction is now growing between those two regions and the inner cities that were previously the focal areas for both. "It seems to me," he writes, "that both the new cosmopolitanism [of suburb and exurb] and this new kind of provincialism [of the cities] are important developments to watch" (72). A personal statement (described in the publisher's copy on the cover as "quirky, insightful, and thoroughly engaging") cannot be faulted...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 222-224
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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