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Watch your language

American dialects are alive and well

JENNIFER Christman of Arkansas' Newspaper went straight to the source the other day to describe how she'd lost her early morning gig with a local radio station. As she wrote, "I was downsized, involuntarily terminated, unassigned, restructured, relieved of duties, dehired, decruited, discontinued, defunded, freed up for the future and career transitioned." Or in short, "fired."

Ms. Christman did succeed admirably in demonstrating how formal, up-to-date American business-speak can't hold a candle to the ever-evolving American vernacular. For when it comes to vivid, concise, and immediately understandable language, there is no competing with good old Americanese, which seems to change on its own with no help from scholarly lexicologists. Like dear Topsy of Uncle Tom's Cabin, it just grows.

On the same day, Douglas Belkin of the Wall Street Journal was writing an obituary for the Dictionary of American Regional English--which had finally gone from "aa" for rough lava in Hawaii through "fuzzywog" for dust under the furniture to "rap jacket" for a game in which people beat each other with switches and finally on to Z as in zydeco in Looziana. But then the money, grants, and other subsidies ran out. And the project had to be taken off life support. For all good things have to end, and this one did. Until it is resurrected in another life, which many of us hope will be soon.

Stephen Vincent Benet fell in love with American names. Many of us have fallen in love with American slang. Just as heresy is a sure sign of a religion that's still alive, the constant emergence of new turns of phrase signifies that the American language is alive and still kicking. Before throwing in the towel as our polyglot language continues to thrive, let us pause not to bury but to praise it.

Change is life and the American language changes with the same speed Americans do. "Dialects are changing, but they're not disappearing," says Laurel MacKenzie of New York University. "Someone who grew up in New York today doesn't sound like someone who grew up in New York 50 or 100 years ago, but they don't sound like someone from Alabama." Long live the difference. And 50 or 100 years from now, the difference may be as unpredictable and delightful. Which will mean the language--written or spoken--will be very much alive.

Every language is a mirror of its people's experience, trials and triumphs. And each speaker changes his language depending on whom he's addressing--employers or employees, family or strangers, those he hopes to impress or those he couldn't care less about. That's why language is a kind of mirror into the soul of the speaker. If a speaker's language is enlightened and gracious, so might he be. But if it's shabby and dirty, threadbare and used-up from years of unoriginal thought, then he might be too, and there will be no disguising his poverty of ideas. Language is Us. So handle with care.

Language is as variable as the people who use it. It is a kind of compressed history of anyone deploying it. Perhaps it is not clothes or manners that make the man, but his language. There are those who might appear to be perfect ladies and gentlemen, until the moment they open their mouths. So, y'all or youse guys, or whatever noun of address Alert Reader may prefer, watch your language. For even the silences between words or instead of them can be telling.

And most telling may be the language we use in speaking to ourselves. It can be full of self-justification and whiny excuses for our defects, or it can be humble and all too candid about our faults, not seeking to blame others but accepting personal responsibility for our derelictions. It's a long road a-winding, the discovery of our truest self. Or our futile attempts to disguise it--even from ourselves.

Editorial on 11/13/2017

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