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Robert MacNeil presents a lively, non-academic report on the language wars raging among linguists, and neatly explains the polarization between the "descriptionists" and "prescriptionists." The former type accept the steady flow of change and describe it; the later hate it, are unyielding, and want to stick their fingers in the dam.

Tom Schachtman, for instance, who wrote "The Inarticulate Society," is maddened by the current state of language– so he fits into the second category, which detractors often call ‘elitist’ when they deign to prescribe solutions.

The battle continues with no truce in sight, but MacNeil finds the balance of power is shifting toward tolerance.

John McWhorter, a linguist at Stanford, argues that "the sixties swept away lofty oratory and marginalized elaborately constructed prose," to the point where Americans now distrust formality in language as insincere.

Jesse Sheidlower, the American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, is a true descriptionist. He disagrees that our language is being ruined. He says "The language is what it is." In his view people have always spoken informally. That speech is now being transported to printed form, publications, and broadcast news– where it has never been in the past."

Americans dress and act more informally now than they did 50 years ago. They’ve "loosened up," and speak and write with a flow of personal freedom. They don’t need or want a language czar cajoling and criticizing them.

They take delight in novelty, and our language bursts with it. The culture is youth-driven, restless, and innovative. The society has a quest for edgy fashion, style, and the latest product models.

Speakers transform American English at a swift pace– dropping verbs, turning nouns into verbs, making ‘media’ singular, snapping up instant lingo, absorbing "garbage words," flipping street talk and underworld jargon (as in "come clean") into "conventional" slang.

But insecurity and uneasiness in language usage is rife. MacNeil notes that "this may be part of the American birthright, a psychological residue from the one fiber in the colonial cord that was never quite severed."

Today kids are leaving high school much freer socially but without the linguistic confidence of earlier generations, who were better grounded in basic grammar. Their casual manner carries a load of social anxiety.

Says linguist Dennis Baron, "Aside from a person’s physical appearance, the first thing someone will be judged by is how he or she talks." Fear of such judgement may be feeding the adamance of doctrines and correctness and the conviction that ‘other people’ are ruining the language.

MacNeil finds the same tension among "non-professional" linguists: regular Americans who care about their language. They "can be either gloriously relaxed about their language or, to use the popular idiom, decidedly uptight."

There is much more to MacNeil’s book. He sees how our seemingly infinitely elastic language embraces new immigrants, and he takes a fine tour of regionalisms and dialects.

He notes that in an acting class in elocution at Northwestern University, students got shorthand keys for phrases like "stark naked." In Boston, it’s "stack naked." In New York, it’s "stock naked." In Georgia, it’s "stalk naked." What a great, colorful, and accepting language we enjoy.

Bill Gates is driven to lead the pack in sound recognition but the pack is filled with top players. Computer databases are tracking and cataloging complex patterns of usage. Very soon more than a hundred million words will be documented and categorized. This ready access to language is bound to alter the way we communicate with one another.

MacNeil’s book has an illuminating section on the status and potential of computerized speech recognition. He interviews experts Clifford Nass at Stanford, who simulates and synthesizes speech in his lab, and Xuedong Huang (known as "XD") at the Microsoft campus.

XD is set on finding a new "architecture" that narrows the performance gap between human and machine speech recognition. He's working to get machines to match the amazing human understanding of speech. When that happens, he says, the impact will be more profound than television.

"Television is a passive way for people to communicate," says XD, "they listen, they cannot participate." The applications that he calls amazing will change the way we live.

It’s a great whirl of words, syntax, and the boundless possibilities of American English. It’s no wonder the British don’t "get it." The results are in as to which version of English is recognized as the global language of commerce, diplomacy, and just about everything else.

Do you speak American? Of course. And aren’t you glad you do?


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