Tuesday, April 12, 2011
April 12, 2011: What Would Change 1, Language
[In honor of Tuesday’s release of my second book, all four posts this week will very briefly highlight one national narrative that I believe would change if we redefined American identity through the lens of cross-cultural transformation. These are very brief glimpses only—not to get all LeVar Burton on you, but if you want to know the rest, read the book! Back to regular posts next week.]
While some of the clamor for legally establishing English as our national language seems clearly based on xenophobia and bigotry, I can certainly understand another factor in that perspective: the worry that a country with multiple languages can devolve into the kind of divided community that, at least in part, Yugoslavia was before its (interconnected) implosion. But the problem I have with these arguments is that they overwhelmingly tend—as so much of the traditional/Anglo/Christian narrative of American identity does—to assume as a given that America once had a single shared language (English) and has moved away from that unifying voice over the centuries (or, often in this narrative, in the last few decades).
But from my historical lens, America has been deeply multilingual from the beginning—including not only the English of the Puritans in Massachusetts and the explorers in Virginia, but Dutch in New Amsterdam, Spanish in Florida, French in the upper Midwest, Russian in Alaska, French Creole in Louisiana, and literally hundreds of Native American languages across the continent. And while a multicultural historical narrative might emphasize the diversity across those languages, a cross-cultural one genuinely focuses on the multilingual side—on how the English of the Puritans comes into contact with the Wampanoag of Squanto, and how both languages and cultures are fundamentally changed by that contact and made into a new, hybrid, American voice. Does that mean that all Americans are or have ever been multilingual? Unfortunately no—but it does mean that American English, like any and all other languages here, has been profoundly shaped by this cross-cultural community. And so while English might indeed be a national language, that means something very different than the political advocates for the idea believe.
Effect #2 tomorrow,