By: Brian Williams, Mountaineer News Contributor
Posted: February 26, 2020 | 07:40 EST
It seems that far too many people think the only way for America to be “great” is to throw out all immigrants (legal or otherwise). This insidious idea carries a LOT of weight. Taken to its extreme, it seems to imply that in a “great” America, everyone is white, everyone is working class, and that everyone speaks English. This ALL bothers me, since America was born as a melting pot, and – are you ready for this?? THERE IS NO OFFICIAL “NATIONAL LANGUAGE” OF THE UNITED STATES. Did you think there was? Did you think it was English? Well, piensa otra vez.
You do realize that we are all immigrants, right? You do realize that very few “native” Americans are still around, and that the preponderance of evidence suggests that even THEY are immigrants, correct? In fact, whether you are a creationist or an evolutionist, you would probably agree that our species has its roots in another continent, n’est pas?
So, why on EARTH do you expect everyone to speak English? I suppose it’s nice to have a common language to ease communication, but couldn’t that language just as easily be French, Spanish, or Swahili? I have a friend who complains that every time he goes into a McDonald’s in Florida (where he lives), the person taking his order doesn’t speak English. Well, I am frightened by the idea that everyone who lives and works in the United States should speak English, and I’ll tell you why: because it would not make us “great;” it would make us DUMB.
To begin, let me confess: I am mono-linguistic. I can barely ask for the bathroom in French, and my Spanish consists of a few cuss words. But I have no problem if YOU speak another language and live in “my” country. In fact, I think it behooves me to learn YOUR language, so that we can share more than breathing space and a sidewalk. And while I appreciate it when people who normally speak another language learn to speak English, I certainly don’t EXPECT it. I would never DEMAND it.
Are you familiar with the theory of linguistic relativity? Back in the 1930’s, a man named Benjamin Whorf hypothesized that the way we think is strongly influenced by the languages available to us; in other words, if we only speak English, then we can only think within the confines of the nouns, verbs and other parts of speech available to us in English. If we only speak Spanish, then we only think within the structure provided by that language. Et cetera.
One of the easiest ways to understand this theory is to imagine what you mean when you say the word “snow.” Unless you have always lived near the equator, you probably have a specific cognitive construct when you think of the word “snow.” Perhaps your idea of “snow” is a six-sided ice crystal – a “flake” of snow. Perhaps your idea is a “drift” of snow. Or maybe you think of the granular, pebbly stuff that makes it a little harder to ski at Snowshoe (I call that “crap,” but you’re probably a better skier than I). Whatever your idea, the word “snow” evokes that idea and allows you think of it in certain ways.
So – what happens if you have 8 different words that all mean “snow?” Does that mean that you have 8 different, distinct ideas for that white, fluffy stuff? Try it out. How many words can you think of that all mean “snow?” Don’t say “sleet,” because that probably means something wetter and nastier. Certainly don’t say “hail,” because the snow I know doesn’t dent the hood of your car during a thunderstorm. Get the idea? Linguistic relativity suggests that we think about our world in ways which are “permitted” by the language(s) we speak.
And suddenly – the whole idea that we might speak multiple languages means that we might have multiple ways of thinking about things. If I speak 5 different languages, then I have potentially 5 different vocabularies available to me when I need to think about something. Cool, huh? Conversely, if I don’t have a word to represent a thing or an action, then I probably don’t have many ways to think about it at all. When was the last time you had “bangers and mash” for dinner? (That’s English, by the way. I’d give you the recipe, but my Microsoft Word thinks that I just misspelled the word “bangers” in that last sentence. Evidently, Microsoft decided that most people who use this software don’t know what “bangers” are.)
The theory of linguistic relativity has interesting implications when we apply it to the idea of a “national language.”
To help us out here, let’s create a language called “Mumblish.” Mumblish only has 50 words in its entire vocabulary. (It’s a lot like the language spoken by Donald Trump, but it’s multi-syllabic.) So, as a native speaker of Mumblish who ONLY speaks Mumblish, I have exactly 50 words available to me to conceptualize and bring into order my thoughts and my perceptions of the world around me.
In Mumblish, there is no word for the long, yellow, slender fruit of a plant commonly grown in the tropics. Don’t say the word “banana” to me and expect me to understand what that is, because Mumblish doesn’t permit me to understand it. In fact, don’t stick a banana in front of me and expect me to peel and eat it, because I won’t even understand that it is a food. (No, Dr. Freud; it’s just an example.)
Now let’s imagine that an entire country full of people who only speak Mumblish decides to become an international superpower and exert its influence over the rest of the world’s population. Because these people believe that their language is the best and only language that can be spoken anywhere, Mumblish becomes the national language of every country on the planet. Over time, all humans lose the ability to think about their world outside of the confines of the 50 words available to them. Bananas and pancakes and chili and thousands of other good things to eat are lost to history because we don’t have the language to think about them. Oh sure – we have “food.” Mumblish has a word for “food.” But how can I communicate the difference between a banana and a banana pepper if the only word I have is “food?”
This is why I am frightened by the idea that everyone who lives and works in the United States should speak English. For many Americans I suppose it’s okay for “those people” to speak another language in the privacy of their own homes, but in their daily discourse at work, in restaurants, or at the grocery store, we expect them to speak English. To me that implies that we want to limit our national intelligence and culture only to those concepts which are accommodated by the English language.
I would rather live in an America which is made GREATER by the contributions of other cultures and languages, than an America which is not merely threatened by them, but even wants to throw them out of the country!
Sadly, according to the zeitgeist of Trump’s America, we don’t want to know about bananas unless we already have a word for them. And God forbid that we should go into a McDonald’s and ask for a Big Mac if the person who works there doesn’t speak English.
Bangers and mash, anyone?