Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Watching What We Say

The other day I was asked to fill out a survey for a friend’s linguistics class.

Now, I generally like taking surveys, since it involves talking about me. You don’t become a blogger unless this is one of your favorite activities, and I own this particular character flaw with an unseemly joy.

I also enjoy classes like that. For someone who is utterly hopeless at the actual mechanics of learning foreign languages, I have always found languages in general to be interesting things. I even managed to convince my undergraduate institution to count “The History of the English Language” and “American Dialects” as history classes for my major, a feat of persuasion that still gives me a sneaking sense of pride nearly a quarter of a century later.

But this survey just annoyed me.

The main question posed was whether or not the United States should pass laws establishing English as its only language and refuse from that point on to acknowledge any other language in its day to day activities. I am not sure how this would work in actual practice and the survey offered no specifics, just the general idea that other languages would somehow go away if ignored in much the same way that the national debt seems to have done lately. All that it said was that if we so legislate it, the United States would become a haven for the English language, where it could flourish uncontaminated by the foul sounds of foreign words.

We will step lightly over the fact that most of the English language – from its grammar to its vocabulary – is the product of mixing with other languages. Such reality-based ideas are not really what the English-only movement is all about and to hold it to these factual standards is therefore in some sense unfair.

The English-only movement here in the United States is one of the drearier forms of Nativism that we have lurking around the edges of American culture these days. The theory behind this movement, one supposes, is that there must have been a time way back in the rose-colored past when everyone in America spoke English as their sole language, but that somehow, through perilously unguarded immigration, moral looseness, or general carelessness, the United States has degenerated from this into a stew of other, lesser languages. “This is ‘Murrica!” the cry goes. “Speak English or get out!”

What a steaming load of nonsense this is.

Say it with me, people: The United States is not now nor has it ever been an English-only nation.

No, it wasn’t one then.

No, not then either.

No – nice try – but not even then was English the only language spoken in the United States. This has never been true, not as far back as you can go or as recent as you can slice it, and no amount of historical ignorance or pre-digested wingnut talking points can overcome the mountains of pathological stupidity required to believe otherwise.

I find it odd that the people making this case rarely do so in Algonquin, Cherokee, Navajo or Iroquois, for one thing. Apparently the English-speaking immigrants were exempt from the oft-stated demand that newcomers learn the language already spoken on the ground.

But even if you confine this all to European arrivals into what is now the United States, it’s still nonsense. The original colonists spoke a bewildering variety of languages – among them Dutch, French, Swedish, a host of African tongues, and a fair amount of German – and this did not change after independence. The nineteenth century only confirmed the polyglot nature of American society and as late as 1914 one out of every four Americans still spoke German on a daily basis. Other than specific languages rising and falling in popularity, none of that story has changed since then, either. Americans speak now and have always spoken a wide variety of languages.

It’s what happens when you have a nation settled by immigrants.

Ironically enough, in light of the fact that so much of the English-only ire is directed at Spanish speakers these days, the first Europeans to settle in what is now the United States were in fact Spanish. St. Augustine, Florida, is the oldest European-founded city in the United States, and it had been there for generations by the time the English put down their first permanent roots at Jamestown, Virginia. Florida, in fact, remained a Spanish possession until the early 1800s.

This doesn’t even begin to get into the fact that most of the American southwest – everything from California to Texas and the Rio Grande to the Oregon border – belonged to Mexico until the United States forcibly removed it from their possession in the 1840s, and was therefore populated by Spanish speakers long before Anglo-Americans showed up. One of the things that is fun to point out to my US 1 class is that the original illegal immigrants into Texas were white Americans in the 1830s, when the place was still a Mexican province called Tejas.

The fact that so much of the English-only crowd seems to hail from places that were originally settled by Spanish-speakers is probably just the universe’s way of being sarcastic.

I have no patience for the kind of aggressive ignorance and bullying stupidity that the English-only movement embodies and I see no reason why I should be polite about it.


Beatrice Desper said...

Oh, I think you were polite. I'd go a step farther:
make one year of foreign language compulsory for any high school diploma given in the USA.

Beatrice Desper said...

I was full of mistakes this morning. I needed my tea.
One step FURTHER, of course.