Yesterday, in the middle of finishing an edit of several chapters of my next book, I found myself caught up in an internet search for the "correct" use of a word. I can't reconstruct my series of clicks, but somehow I ended up on the
PBS website, following a series of articles on the way language shifts and changes what we do and what we believe. The technical term for this field of study is sociolinguistics -- a topic I had never studied. Nevertheless, I found that I held a number of assumptions, nearly all of which proved to be wrong. I thought:
1. TV and radio have made the English language more homogenized.
2. Regional dialects are disappearing.
3. Differences in black and white speech are disappearing.
4. There is such a thing as standard American English.
5. Pronunciation is tied to social status.
Now, I've lived in many parts of the U.S. in my adult life. After being educated in northern Ohio, I've lived in Washington State; Panama City, Florida; Key West; Ontario, Canada; Colorado; and Tennessee. Almost everywhere I've traveled, someone has said "You're not from around here, are you?" My son learned to talk in Canada, and for his entire life, he could startle me with his pronunciation of the word "about" -- not "abowt" but "aboot." I said "Huh?" He said "EH?"
Still, I thought those were just small differences.
As an English teacher, I insisted on "correct English" from my students. But this whole series of articles seemed bent on proving me wrong: TV has had NO effect on the way we speak. Regional and ethnic differences are becoming more distinct. And pronunciation depends almost entirely on where the speaker lives at any given time. Red States really do differ from Blue States. Maybe that's why we have so much trouble understanding each other.
The article that really caught my attention had to with a regional dialect known as "Northern English." A map showed that northern English is spoken in a region that stretches from the shores of the Great Lakes through Minnesota, with another small section referred to as the "St. Louis Corridor." I recognized the location; I grew up in it. But here was the kicker. The writer, an internationally respected sociolinguist, argued that pronunciations in this region were undergoing a major vowel shift. It was, he said, a change that started in 1960 and is continuing today. He offered lots of examples; the one I remember best is the pronunciation of my middle name -- Ann. He argued that in 1960, Ann was pronounced with one syllable and a flat, open-mouthed a-- [an]. Today, in Cleveland, Ann is pronounced the same as the name Ian-[-ee-un]. That kind of vowel shift is as distinct as the one that occurred in the English language between 1400 and 1600.
My first reaction was to say, "No way!" But then I realized that I really didn't know what I was talking about. I left northern Ohio in 1961, just as the change began. And I have not been back since, except for short periods of one to three days. I haven't heard the shift in pronunciation, but I know that I no longer feel at home there. Maybe you really can't go home again.