Homogenization of American English

Andrew Sullivan passes along a lament:

New words spring up all the time, but American language has become duller in some respects, because of the homogenizing impact of mass culture. The Subway fast-food chain has largely settled the great torpedo vs. hoagie vs. po’ boy vs. grinder vs. hero debate—most people just call a long sandwich a “sub.” Yet what makes for better conversation, a cold Texas wind or a “blue norther”? A baby frog on Martha’s Vineyard or a “pinkletink”? The loss of such words almost puts a lump in your goozle.

Additionally, he notes this description by Simon Winchester of the Dictionary of American Regional English:

The completed dictionary memorializes an American language that is demarcated by geography, topography, heritage, immigration. In that sense it differs significantly from the many slang dictionaries, which display a quite different, but equally informal language, that is denominated largely by craft, by age, by persuasion. The language of thieves and computer geeks, of carnival workers and sportsmen, of drug addicts and prostitutes and the homosexual world is qualitatively different from the dialect words of those who have lived for years in the valleys of West Virginia, say, or the plains of South Dakota. These two kinds of languages may occasionally overlap, but they are by no means cut from the same cloth.

To me, this is of a piece of those who pine for dead languages, thinking we’re poorer that various tribal dialects are no longer in active use. While I have an appreciation for regionalisms and the charm of foreign tongues, the fact of the matter is that language exists primarily as a means of communicating with our fellow man. In an ideal world, then, we’d all speak a single language and in close enough form as to be universally understandable. Everything else is novelty.

So, yeah, “baby frog” might not have quite the charm of “pinkletink”–but it has the virtue of me knowing what the hell you’re talking about.

Language image by Shutterstock.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Budgie93 says:

    America and England – two nations separated by a common tounge

  2. Could this mean that we’ll someday have a final resolution of the soda v. pop v. coke debate?

  3. Franklin says:

    So, yeah, “baby frog” might not have quite the charm of “pinkletink”–but it has the virtue of me knowing what the hell you’re talking about.

    Variety is the spice of life, and you just taught me a new word.

  4. I…don’t think so. As the Internet has become a bigger and bigger part of people’s lives, we’ve had a huge influx of people into the world of writing. Much more of American (Human, even?) life is text-based now than it ever has been. There’s a lot more effort to recall spelling and grammar rules, which are effectively being crowdsourced rather than enforced by academics. “Novelty” in language often expresses something that wasn’t getting across with accepted, homogenized language. That’s why we have poetry, and art that isn’t based in anything verbal.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Sara Anderson: I’m not arguing that the English language shouldn’t evolve, just that it should do so on a national–and preferably, global–basis.

  6. justinslot says:

    “Most people just call a long sandwich a “sub.””

    I know I’m living deep in hoagie country, but this isn’t remotely true.

  7. Brett says:

    I can understand some of the concerns from historians and anthropologists, particularly since the language is usually tied quite heavily to culture in non-written language cultures.

  8. @justinslot:

    Likewise, I’m in a blending zone between two regions, so I have to live with oddities like a chain called “Lee’s Hoagie House” that only sells Italian sandwhiches.

  9. Ron Beasley says:

    I saw this happening in Germany in the late 60s and early 70s. Everyone started speaking Frankfurter Deusche because Frankfurt was where the TV stations were.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    The process has been ongoing for about 75 years. Back in the 1930s the radio networks adopted a standard pronunciation. It’s called variously “General English”, “Standard American”, or “Broadcast English”. It’s the American equivalent of British Received Pronunciation AKA “BBC English”.

    General English approximates an educated Midwest dialect, specifically an educated Chicago dialect. It’s been spread via radio, television, and movies and I suspect its domination will continue. Nowadays in television and movies the various American dialects are used mostly to signal certain social characteristics. Rural Southern is used to communicate backwardness, Brooklyn to communicate urban toughness, etc.

    The decline in dialects has proceeded quite rapidly. When I was a kid Strong Brooklyn, Bronx, Boston, Southie, Philadelphia, West Texas, East Texas, Virginia, Georgia dialects, Connecticut, and various other regional dialects were frequently heard. I grew up speaking the distinct St. Louis dialect (it’s eroded away over the years).

  11. Kit says:

    In an ideal world, then, we’d all speak a single language and in close enough form as to be universally understandable. Everything else is novelty.

    Spoken like a man who speaks but a single language. I guess food is just fuel and sex is just for procreation too.

  12. John Burgess says:

    A nice thing about language use — at least in English — is that you can stray from the borders of the accepted. If you want to use a dialect or cant word, you can. Yes, you might cause a given reader/listener to lose the thread, but most can be picked up through context, if not exactly, then close enough.

    I don’t have any problem going to a dictionary if I come across words I don’t know. And while I have a relatively massive English vocabulary, I don’t pretend that I know every word out there. To me, that’s a feature of English, not a bug.

    But I do keep Urban Dictionary bookmarked on my browser, right along with a couple of other dictionaries.

  13. Mr. Prosser says:

    It strikes me the use of regional dialects and colloquialisms in general conversation outside of those regions these days would be the mark of a poseur. Any modern dialects are more made up of technical jargon, ie. computerspeak, educationspeak, etc. used nationally by those in a common profession or pursuit.

  14. @Kit:

    Spoken like a man who speaks but a single language. I guess food is just fuel and sex is just for procreation too.

    I enjoy poetry, but would be annoyed if the instructions for my 1040 form were written by Walt Whitman. It’s possibly to enjoy the beauty of artistic language for enlightenment, while still recognizing the importance of clarity and utility for more mundane purposes.

  15. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    This entire thread shows the results of allowing pseudo academics to comment on things about which they possess no understanding at all–but it was entertaining for a few minutes.

    “Full of sound and fury/ signifying nothing.”