American Tongues is a classic film on language variation and the attitudes we have towards it. This documentary was produced by Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker, and it is the inaugral film in the Point of View (POV) documentary series on PBS. American Tongues features a number of well known linguists, including Dr. Walt Wolfram of North Carolina State Unviersity (NCSU) and Dr. Roger Shuy, who now works primarily as a forensic linguist.
The documentary begins with an adorable sequence of language variation: people with a variety of accents recite parts of a common nursery rhyme. But viewers shouldn’t let this fool them. American Tongues does an excellent job of documenting folk beliefs about accents. Since people are often judged and discriminated against based on their accents, this film generates serious discussion questions about our language and our society. (Two versions of this film exist. One that is appropriate for the K-12 system, and one which has more mature content.)
If there’s any criticism of the film, it’s that American Tongues was produced in the 1980s. The themes are still relevant, but I sometimes find it difficult to convince some of my younger students that the film features people from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. (Most of the clothing styles that were popular in the 1980s have been in thrift stores for the last ten or fifteen years.) Yet, the film, which won a Peabody, does a remarkable job of allowing its underlying themes to filter through such distractions. I continue to show American Tongues in my college level classes every year. Each time I do, a new group of students reports that this film has profoundly changed them and the way that they think about language.
Dr. Wolfram has gone on to produce a number of other important documentaries about individual American dialects, but American Tongues is still one of the best documentaries about language variation I have ever seen. You can see it for free online through August 1st on the following link: