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Home News News items English Only?

English Only?

by Bob Maschi
Special to the Peace and Freedom Party


The 'English Only' movement pops up periodically in modern U.S. history. It is usually promoted by conservatives and often coincides with more general attacks against immigrants and people of color. To support their argument, these people often cite things like tradition, patriotism and the 'American way'. Their arguments are often pushed forward by racists and, surely, racism is the main propellant forwarding this cause.

What this movement lacks is knowledge of facts and history. Theirs is an ethnocentric (look it up) view of the world that relies on misconceptions and a narrow view of our history and society. Unfortunately, the general public holds many of these same misconceptions and narrow views.

NATIVE AMERICANS

If 'tradition' dictates the language we use, then we'd be speaking one of the hundreds of Native American languages that are currently available.

Setting aside the 'who discovered America' debate, when Columbus voyaged near this area there were over 300 languages being spoken. Most of those languages continue to be spoken by Native Americans (including Alaskan Natives). Of course, Columbus (whom we have a holiday set aside for) couldn't understand any of them. In fact, he wouldn't understand most people in the United States today. While he spoke several languages, none of them was English.

Proponents of English as our official language generally ignore Native Americans. Which is an easy thing to do since most branches of government - apart from the military and law enforcement - also ignore Native Americans. But many people don't seem to feel that taking their land, practicing genocide on their ancestors and corralling them onto useless pieces of property is insult enough. Now they want to discourage the use of their traditional languages as well.

THE UNITED STATES OF EMPIRE

The United States is an empire. It has conquered or otherwise taken control of many areas that now make up what we know as this country. With those lands came trees and rocks and lakes and... people! People who probably didn't have much say in which nation they belonged to and who were doing perfectly fine before we came along. People with their very own languages.

This country began with the original 13 colonies (a baker's dozen - Georgia was thrown in for free). Of course, all of the United States was originally Native American land. But the conquering did not end there. We bargained with Spain for Florida. Most people from Spain speak Spanish. We bought the Louisiana Purchase from France. This included all or portions of 15 current states. Most people in France speak French. We bought Alaska from Russia. A lot of Russians speak Russian. We annexed Hawaii. Native Hawaiians speak native Hawaiian. We took California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming from Mexico. A lot of Mexicans speak Spanish.

The empire continues. The U.S. owns a lot of places that have never been made into states. Puerto Rico for example. Originally, we took Puerto Rico from the Spanish. Of course, the fact that Spanish is their primary language is a mere coincidence.

The United States also 'owns' several territories including American Samoa (official languages are English and Samoan), Guam (official languages are English and Chamorro) and Northern Mariana Islands (official languages are English, Chamorro and Carolinian).

To claim that languages aside from English have no place or history in the United States is a narrow view that isn't backed up by the facts.

SPANISH-SPEAKERS & THE RISK OF EMPIRE

It is no secret that the English-Only movements are aimed at Spanish speakers. Everyone else is just caught up in it.

This is the risk of empire. Citizens of the United States are notoriously short-sighted (why else would they continue to elect both Republicans and Democrats?). Few could name more than a couple previous Vice Presidents. They seem to forget every recession as soon as it is over. I actually heard a proponent of English-Only claim that people in the southwest shouldn't speak Spanish because, "We were here first."

Of course, Native Americans were in the Southwest first and Spanish-speakers after that. Following our invasion of Mexico during the Mexican-American War of 1848, we took the 'Mexican Cession' that now accounts for almost one-third of the continental United States (at the time, it also accounted for almost half of Mexico). This area included all of California, Utah and Nevada and large portions of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. This doesn't include Texas, which had also belonged to Mexico.

To imperialists, this surely seemed like a great deal at the time. And, for a nation in a world of nations, it was. It provided land to settle and farm, ores, oil, Pacific seaports, a place to make movies and much more. But along with this land came a large Spanish-speaking population. More, that land remained in close proximity to Mexico and Central America. Like most ethnic minority groups in the United States (Italians, Irish, Armenians, Brazilians and many more) these people want to retain some aspects of their origins. Some of these people want to retain their language or, at least, the freedom to do so.

This is the risk of empire. It is a trade-off that, long ago, the United States accepted in return for expanding boundaries.

After English, Spanish is the most used language in the United States. Over 30 million people, more than 12% of the population, use Spanish as their primary language. These people outnumber the Spanish-speaking populations of all but 4 other countries (Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Spain). In many areas within big cities (and not only in the southwest) the great majority of people speak Spanish - and they have the billboards to prove it.

U.S. STATES

Several states don't have an official language (often because English is not the only language used by its population). But there are some interesting facts to note.

The state of Hawaii has two official languages (English and Hawaiian).

Louisiana has both French and Spanish beginnings. While most of Louisiana speaks English, about 5% of its people speak French or offshoots of French called Cajun and Creole. Another 3% use Spanish.

French is the fourth most often used language in the United States. Many people in New England (Maine, New Hampshire), probably because of their proximity to French-speaking Quebec, speak French.

In New Mexico, almost a third of the people speak Spanish.

But what about the actual names of states? Less than a dozen US States are named after English words (New York, New Hampshire and Maryland, for example). Several more come from Spanish (California, Florida), French (Louisiana) and other languages.

Over half of the fifty names come directly from Native American languages. Choctaw has given us Alabama and Oklahoma. The Quapaw lent Arkansas. Illinois is from the Algonquin. From the Wyandot came Kentucky. Michigan, Mississippi and Wisconsin are derived from the language of the Chippewa.

It appears to be a proud tradition in this country to honor the people it is practicing genocide against by naming states and other geographical entities in their language.

Obviously, the people who settled this country didn't feel English was so important that the states they would be living in had to be named in that language.

ENGLISH: THE BORROWED LANGUAGE

English, itself, usually has base words derived from Latin (directly and indirectly through another language). But English speakers didn't stop there. English changes over time and often steals words from other languages. There's nothing criminal about this. In fact, it makes perfect sense. If something comes along that you don't have a word for, use someone else's word for it! Simple.

These are called loan words and they abound in English dictionaries. Bungalow and shampoo are Hindi. Kangaroo comes from Australian aborigines. From African languages came banana, banjo, zombie and jazz. The Dutch lent us trek and yacht. Admiral, mattress, alcohol and orange have Arabic origins. From Italian we get balcony, cartoon, mascara, studio, soda and lottery. Spanish gave us guerrilla, patio, plaza, potato, vanilla and ranch. Hebrew lent armageddon, behemoth, jezebel and jubilee. From Japan we use anime, haiku, judo, teriyaki and tofu.

Loan words aren't unusual in any language. But English is made up, almost entirely, of such words. Less than 10% of English can claim to be of its own design. The English language has a tradition of borrowing from other languages. In fact, without this borrowing, we really wouldn't have very much to say to each other - or be able to say it.

WHEN IN ROME...

QUESTION: What language appears on a one-dollar bill?

ANSWER: Mainly English, but also Latin. On the back of the bill, above the pyramid, is the phrase; ANNUIT COEPTIS (which means 'dry clean only') and beneath the pyramid is; NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM (employees must wash hands before returning to work). Actually they say something about god favoring us and the beginning of a new age.

Even more, all of modern U.S. coins carry the Latin phrase 'E Pluribus Unum' which means 'out of many, one' (Really. No joke).

And it isn't only on money where you'll find the Latin language. Most courthouses have a smattering of it chiseled into their architecture (this is just to make you feel really intimidated while visiting the place). In fact, Latin legal terms abound. A small sample includes; ad hominem, bona fide, de facto, habeas corpus, ibid, ipso facto, modus operandi, pro bono, subpoena, veto and vice versa.

Latin is also used extensively in the fields of medicine and the sciences. And if that isn't patriotic enough for you, the US Marine Corps' motto, "Semper fidelis" is also in Latin.

Obviously, intelligent people often employ Latin rather than English - even in the United States. And they always have.

ASL

English came from England, not the United States. But there is an actual, home-grown language. It's known as ASL or American Sign Language and it's used by many people who can't hear, their families and their supporters. ASL is not simply English interpreted visually. It is a language of its own.

Up to 2 million people use ASL as their primary language.

Now, doesn't it seem unpatriotic to make another country's language our official one? And didn't we kick England off our shores over 200 years ago? Why promote the language of England when we have a true-blue, patriotic language right here? Let's make ASL our official language!

It sure would make it a lot quieter around here.

LINGUISTIC SOCIETY OF AMERICA

The Linguistic Society of America (LSA) was founded in 1924 and is the major professional society of linguists in the United States. Back in the 1980's they came out, strongly, against the English Only movement.

They noted that it was an attempt to prevent "legislature and state agencies and officials from providing services or information" to people who were not fluent in English and that this view is based on "misconceptions about the role of a common language in establishing political unity, and that they are inconsistent with basic American traditions of linguistic tolerance."

They went on further to suggest that "The English language in America is not threatened" and that "History shows that a common language cannot be imposed by force of law, and that attempts to do so usually create divisiveness and disunity."

Geoffrey Pullum, a noted linguist, wrote in his essay titled 'Here Come the Linguistic Fascists' that; "...making English the official language of the United States of America is about as urgently called for as making hotdogs the official food at baseball games."

RACISM & LANGUAGE

Few would argue that knowing English is unimportant in the United States. It may well be the easiest and most effective way for a newcomer to achieve a decent living standard in this country. But knowing Spanish, or other languages, can be a tremendous boost as well.

Insisting on English as our official language shows a lack of historical knowledge and practical thinking. It can best be explained as racist, and the issue is certainly used by racists to advance their own, sick agendas. In turn, by promoting divisions between us, corporate interests benefit. Our inability to organize together against common economic forces and foes leads to lesser wages and lower living standards for all poor and working people.

Should English be our official language? In English or Spanish the answer is the same.

No.
 
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