‘Do You Speak American?’

By Rhea R. Borja — December 07, 2004 1 min read

Yins. Cattywhompus. Ayuh. Witchudidga. Pro-nasty.

A new PBS documentary chronicles the rich variety of American English, examining the laconic New England speech of Maine lobstermen, California’s “surfer dude” lingo, and controversies over the use of Ebonics, an African-American dialect, as an instructional approach by some schools.

The journalist and broadcaster Robert MacNeil talks to linguists, historians, newspapermen, and regular folks to explore the diversity, history, and evolution of Americans’ brand of English in “Do You Speak American?”

Show host Robert MacNeil gathers snowboarder lingo from Californian Jayk Goff.

The three-part public-broadcasting series premieres Jan. 5 (check local listings), and was produced by Arlington, Va.-based MacNeil Lehrer Productions and Thirteen/WNET New York. It is a follow-up to a 1986 documentary by Mr. MacNeil, “The Story of English.”

In addition to tackling such contentious topics as Ebonics, Mr. MacNeil’s new program teaches about the Spanish roots of words such as rodeo, bronco, and stampede, and airs the views of Hollywood screenwriters about the impact of popular-movie culture on the English language.

A companion Web site,, offers classroom activities, study guides, and other resources for high school teachers. It will also offer a 1,200-word database of some of the slang used in the series.

“We look at slang, at different accents, how [they’re] used in music and technology,” said Karen Jaffe, the manager for education projects at MacNeil Lehrer Productions. “It’s a very exciting way for young people to look at the language.”

Equally important, she said, the show and its Web site highlight “the commonality among Americans.”