Book Review: Language in the USA (Towards Smarter Multilingualism)

I’ve been lax in my blogging, so I thought I would add some reviews of books which are written for non-specialists but focus on some aspect of linguistics. I will start with the anthology Language in the USA

Book Product Details (from

Paperback: 520 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (June 28, 2004)
ISBN-10: 052177747X
ISBN-13: 978-0521777476


This is a collection of articles covering different aspects of linguistic culture in the United States. The first part covers regional American English including origins, distinctiveness of the general accent, regional varietes, “social varieties” and a chapter on African American English and one on American Sign Language. The second part covers non-English with a focus on Spanish as well as creoles, Native American languages and multilingualism. The third section is an overview of different “sociolinguistic” issues including education, teen slang, gender/sexuality and cyberspace language.

My review

As you can see from the list above the goal of this book is to educate readers about the linguistic facts behind various “hot” policy and cultural topics. As such, the articles are written by discipline experts and include an overview of the field, specific data, a detailed bibliography and recommendations for further research.

Generally speaking, I would say the articles are successful because while they are not technical, they provide important details that clarify the underlying issues. For instance most people are familiar with American Sign Language (ASL) but may not realize it it has a grammar distinct from English, comes in regional varieties and has shown linguistic change over time. Hence ASL does have a unique linguistic heritage which is different from English.

The tone is generally non-preachy, which is good idea when the goal is to explain that commonly held views of language may be … uh-hmm… dead wrong. More importantly, the academic tone of the articles lends crucial credibility to research fields like the study of hip-hop which might otherwise be considered “frivolous” by the general public. Another valuable factor is that many articles discuss research methods of past history of the discipline. Understanding where the data comes from is crucial for being able to track future debates where language and policy/culture collide.

As with any anthology, the articles vary in quality, but two particularly strong articles are “Spanish in the Northeast” and “Spanish in the Southwest”. Although Spanish is the second largest language in the United States, these two articles show that not all Spanish speakers in the U.S. are alike.

For instance, “Spanish in the Northeast” article explains most speakers in the northeast have historically emigrated from the Caribbean and explains some of the history of immigrants from different countries. An example from the article is that in the middle of the 20th century, Anglos tended to regard the Cuban and Dominican communities more sympathetically then the Puerto Rican community because Cubans/Dominican immigrants were considered political refugees while Puerto Ricans were merely considered to be poor citizens from a U.S. colony. The recent situation in the northeast is now more complicated because of immigrants from other parts of Latin America including Mexican immigrants which previously had emigrated primarily to the Southwest

The “Spanish in the Southwest” article includes a discussion of the long contact between Spanish and English speakers in the region – enough so that there are Spanish vocabulary words unique to the region. It also mentions an important point that a significant number of speakers may be of Hispanic or Mexican heritage but are actually monolingual English speakers. Timing of immigration is an important factor.

Although most of the articles are well-written, there are a few glitches. One gap is that there is no key for the special phonetic symbols used in different articles. On the one hand, I don’t think you can have a rational discussion of pronunciation for long without understanding how a transcription system works, but then again so few Americans learn it that a key is essential. Some articles do explain the underlying pronunciation mechanisms, but it’s a fine line to walk.

Ironically, another weak area is coverage of regional American English. While it does cover the basics, it doesn’t really touch on the details that many “mainstream” English speakers are interested in. Then again regional English could cover an entire book and they are available. Some of my favorites in that vein are the The Story of English and Do You Speak American?

One of the ongoing challenges facing the field of linguistics is how to translate important research insights into a format that non-specialists can understand. I think Language in the USA does an admirable job of trying to bridge the gap between researcher and citizen, hopefully without losing too much data in the process.

My Rating

I’ll give a 4.5 out of 5

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