A few things went through my head this morning after I opened an email today exhorting me to write my congress-person in support of House Bill H.R. 6783, a bill that purports to protect our impressionable, God-fearing, English-speaking students from being lead stray by the pagan vices of foreigners by making it illegal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or the Star-Spangled Banner in any language other than English whilst inside of a school.
The first thing that went through my mind was a joke.
Q: If a person who speaks two languages is called bilingual, and a person who speaks three languages is called trilingual, then what’s a person who speaks only one language called?
A: An American.
The second thing was a dull ringing headache, which I’ve discovered is my body’s natural reaction to being enveloped in a vortex of dumb.
See, from time to time I get emails like this. Usually they have subjects like “VERY IMPORTANT! READ IF YOU CARE ABOUT THE USA!” and the very act of reading the subject lines alone causes me to wince, since they give the impression of someone yelling at me. Is this really the way this person would carry on a conversation with me? It’s a bit like Ford Prefect’s conversation with Number Two in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:
No.2: WHADDYA WANT TO DRINK?!?
Ford: Jinnin tonix sounds good to me…
No.2: WITH ICE OR WITHOUT?!?
Ford: Oh, with please.
Usually I chalk up such emails as yet another example of reactionary xenophobic email that I get sent from time to time from “concerned educators” alerting me to the various ways by which illegal immigrants are getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal scholarships while decent white students are being forced to pick strawberries and grapes down in Tijuana just to pay their book fees. A quick stop at Snopes is usually enough to dismiss these as ill-informed nonsense, and in those cases where Snopes isn’t enough of a deterrent, a quick Google search for the email’s senders usually is:
However, this time the bill in question is bona fide. It’s called the
Pledge Language is English Declaration and Government Endorsement Act of 2008
I find it amusing that a bill demanding the use of the English language should employ it in such a clunky (or at least grammatically strained) manner in its title. Then again, this bit of legislation was introduced by Representative Paul Braun (R, Georgia), so its apparent difficulty with straightforward English should not be unexpected. Braun made headlines last week when, while voicing concerns over Barack Obama’s call for a civilian security force, he said
That’s exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany and it’s exactly what the Soviet Union did. When he’s proposing to have a national security force that’s answering to him, that is as strong as the U.S. military, he’s showing me signs of being Marxist. We can’t be lulled into complacency. You have to remember that Adolf Hitler was elected in a democratic Germany. I’m not comparing him to Adolf Hitler.
Political rhetoric notwithstanding, if you open your commentary with “Obama wants to do the same thing as Hitler did,” then you have, in fact, compared him to Hitler. (That’s pretty much the definition of compare, actually.) I find it difficult to take seriously an endorsement for the sanctity of the English language from someone who has yet to master its basics.
Of course, the goofy idiosyncrasies — or idiotsyncrasies, if you will — of this particular bill are par for the course. There are many dumb things in the universe — the cult of celebrity, using the “Start” button to shut down Windows, Fox News — but chief among them are attempts by a government to legislate a national identity by restricting use of language.
For example, in the early 2000s, the French started levying fines against government officials who used English words in their official duties, going so far as to produce a list of officially banned English terms. The French were concerned that the purity of their language was being diluted by a deluge of anglicized words, and unlike their borders or their economy, their language is one of the very few things the French are capable of defending by themselves.
Among the banned terms were things like jumbo jet and email. In the end, the Academie Francais, the French institution charged with keeping the French language full of circumflexes, cedillas, and unnecessarily long strings of vowels at the ends of words, created artificial francophonic versions of these phrases, which were then subsequently made the official terms. In particular, in 2003 they officially chose the term courriel as the official replacement for email, the term being a portmanteau of the French phrase courrier electronique. Of course, what this changed was absolutely nothing — the average French person still refers to the stuff in his/her inbox as email (albeit with a French inflection), while the diehard French linguists bristle as using a term derived from the etymology of Quebec French rather than European French (which would have based the new terminology on message electronique). Oh well, c’est la vie!
Of course, this example can be easily dismissed: we’re talking about the French. They eat snails as a delicacy and made Gerard Depardieu famous. Nothing they do can be taken seriously.
However, in a strange case of deja vu, just last week I read an AP article about how English goverment officials were being advised to eliminate Latin words in their official duties, going so far as to produce a list of officially banned Latin terms. Unlike the French, their reason isn’t some sense of linguistic purity, since asking for a pure English etymology is like asking for a purebred labradoodle. Rather, it is an attempt to make official English more accessible to a wider range of people by eliminating “elitist” and “discriminatory” Latin phrases. However, like the French, the effect has been pretty much the same — it is completely ignored by the average Briton while simultaneously putting British linguists into an apoplectic fit (one called the it “linguistic equivalent of an ethnic cleansing”).
Oddly enough, the list of banned “elitist Latin phrases” includes such commonplace staples of everyday language as et cetera and status quo, which would suggest that the English use different definition of “elitist” than the one with which I am familiar.
In any case, both of these examples serve to illustrate the basic problem inherent with legislating the use of language. Language, be it French or English or Swahili, is a living entity, and it evolves with each generation of people who speak it, adapting to reflect the realities and circumstances of the culture it serves at the time. A language’s greatest strength is its ability to modify itself and adapt. Said differently, it is the national character that influences the national language, not the other way round. It’s like arguing that, say, George Bush would have a better grasp of international diplomacy if he could only forced to say “nu-cle-ar” instead of “nu-cu-lar.”
As a language changes and sheds its disused layers, its more archaic aspects are preserved in texts and art, acting as a uniquely human time capsule capturing that aspect of culture and history. Hence, anyone who claims to be “protecting” people by “preserving” language is doing no such thing. Rather, they’re hoping that by “freezing” language — preserving it by embalming it as if already dead — they can “freeze” society they way they like it. It’s xenophobia disguised as logic predicated on the false assumption that P implies Q similarly demands that Q implies P.
So, come on, already… let’s quit policing language and get on to more important things.
…Unless someone would like to outlaw Text Speak. I can’t fucking stand that crap. All those ZOMGs and ROFLs are destroying the fabric of America. Goddamn hippies.