How We Speak

American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society, is unique, in the old sense of “one of a kind.” It is the one and only academic journal that focuses on what’s happening with the English language in the United States.

The editorial policy is more inclusive, allowing articles on “the English language in the Western Hemisphere” and “other languages influencing English or influenced by it,” but the center of attention remains American English.

Many people are concerned enough to write articles about what our language should be doing; look no further than Lingua Franca for examples. Few people, however, take the trouble to do research and find out, for better or worse, what our language actually is doing. Those few find room for their research in American Speech and its companion annual monograph, Publication of the American Dialect Society.

American Speech is unusual, though not unique, in another way. While some of its articles are technical, requiring understanding of voice spectrograms or of statistical analysis, others are accessible to anyone.

This reflects its ancestry. It was founded in the 1920s by Louise Pound, a scholar at the University of Nebraska, and none other than H.L. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore, and author The American Language, the most successful book ever on that subject.

In the past year of American Speech, for example, there have been accessible articles on witness depositions in the Salem witch trials, the difference between swearwords and slang, hon as a distinctive feature of Baltimore speech (“Welcome to Baltimore, Hon!”), and whether Utahns really don’t pronounce the “t” in mountain. There are reviews, and a collection of articles on teaching about dialects, and short notes on matters like the etymology of a word. The Baltimore article is actually an “audio feature,” including a link to interviews with residents of the city. Yes, American Speech now includes speech.

Among the interests of the American Dialect Society are new words, and American Speech reflects this interest with a column “Among the New Words” that has appeared in almost every issue since April 1941. It is now conducted by Benjamin Zimmer and Charles Carson. One column each year discusses the Words of the Year chosen by members and friends of the American Dialect Society every January.

The most recent column, in the issue dated Fall 2012, is all about names for types of popular music. You can learn about bassline house (characterized by complex bass patterns), chap hop (with British topics like tea and cricket), chillwave (“combines the digital effects and sampling of modern electronic music with low-fi, electronic pop aesthetic of the 1980s”), chiptune (“on a computer chip played as part of a video game or computer program”), and more than a dozen others.

Best of all, this article too has an audio feature. Its PDF version, available to subscribers, has links to examples of many of the types of music. So you don’t have to try to imagine the sound of liquid porn, a “Genre of electronic music characterized by syncopated beats, slow heavy bass line, defined melody, harmonies, instrumental layers, and ambient effects”; just click on the PDF link and you can hear the piece “Liquid Porn” by none other than … yrrrlicht.

American Speech should be available in any respectable university library, and it’s also part of membership in the American Dialect Society. For more information follow this link to the publisher, Duke University Press.



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