Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Spanish, Ebonics, and Bushisms: English As Whose National Language?

So we've got another case of conservatives trying to crack down on that creeping menace...the Spanish language. Public libraries in suburban Atlanta will no longer acquire adult fiction in Spanish because immigrants reading John Grisham is a threat to national security, national identity, and national geographic.

I find this curfuffle over language not terribly interesting in itself -- it's just naked racism -- but when it is put in the complete picture of our national struggles over language, it becomes more amusing. After all, the people demanding that English be recognized as an essential part of our culture are the same folks who call some of us elitist for snickering about the fact that our President cannot speak...say it with me...the English language. Somehow when Bush mangles this sacred part of our heritage it is not an insult to America, no, it makes him more authentically American. But when recent immigrants speak English with limited fluency, that is a threat that needs immediate remedy.

Now, it is certainly true that there are two aspects to language. On the one hand, it is a formal thing with a set of rules that govern construction of well-formed sentences and definitions that connect the terms to the world. Sentences may be diagrammed and grammar may need correction. On the other hand, language is a functional aspect of society. It is the medium which we use to communicate and is a living, changing part of our culture. Dictionaries are not the word cops, they do not tell us how we must use a word; dictionaries are social scientific documentation that describes how words are used in the culture. If I tell you that "I am going to peruse this book," did I tell you that I was going to give it a quick scan, as most people would mean, or that I am going to read it carefully, as the dictionary definition of "peruse" would have you believe? If most people think a word means something other than what the dictionary says, then it is the dictionary that must change, because in its actual usage, the word has changed meaning.

So when we say that English is the official national language, which English? The English of your ninth grade grammar teacher or the English of Bush and the folks working down in the local McDonalds? Those of us who use the pronoun "whom" when referring to the unmentioned object of a verb or who only use "quote" as a verb and not a noun, get nasty looks. Not that my grammar is always precise; despite Mrs. Frankel's best efforts, I still get excited over dangling my participles, although I don't do it frequently in public anymore.

But when we hear people hew about making English an official language, they really mean the English they speak, a dialect of English. Of course, recognizing a dialect is not without political contention either. After all, these protectors of the English language are the same folks who ridiculed Ebonics when there was an attempt to designate it as a dialect. The purpose of Ebonics, something that seems utterly lost on so many, was to help promote English. Teachers in Oakland schools with large African American populations were horribly underfunded. They realized that schools with large Spanish speaking populations got extra money to teach English as a second language. It occurred to them that their own students were speaking something other than the Queen's English and that teaching these kids English was much more like teaching ESOL to the children of immigrants than teaching language arts to kids in Mill Valley. So they tried to get Ebonics declared a distinct dialect in order to have more resources to teach...say it with me...the English language.

So when is the promotion of the English language important? Not when it means helping out troubled schools, only when it means not helping recent immigrants, most of whom are perfectly legal, law abiding, tax paying citizens. It almost seems as if this isn't about the English language at all, but about not wanting to help others. But that couldn't be it, I mean refusing to be one's brother's keeper, that's not Christian.