The Case For Calling the Language "American"News at Home
tags: language, linguistics, cultural history, English Language, Translation
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. His book The People’s Tongue: Americans and the English Language (Restless Books) has just been published.
Print by Root & Tinker, 1886, Library of Congress Print and Photograph Division, pga.04071
Is it still appropriate to refer to our nation’s language as English?
It is, after all, the tongue of our colonial heritage. It was what the Pilgrims spoke when they first arrived on November 11, 1620, and it is that tool they used to establish a foundation in the New World. Part of our anti-colonial attitude today makes a case for reparations to the litany of abuses the settlers and their successors engaged in. My argument isn’t along those lines. After all, as Walter Benjamin stated in his essay “On the Concept of History,” “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Any aspect of contemporary culture is marked by violence, even those defined by a pacifist attitude.
To make my argument, let me invoke a strategy the French use when translating foreign books into their own tongue. Ever sensitive to cultural uniqueness, not to mention appropriation, they don’t say, in the cover of novels, in film subtitles, and so on, that it was translated from, for instance, Spanish or Arabic. Instead, they make clear the piece in question was rendered from Mexican, Tunisian, etc. Yes, they dare to call Mexican Spanish Mexican and Egyptian Arabic Egyptian. In other words, the French dare to use the locale where a language is in its name.
This is done, they argue—wisely—, because of the crucial nuances distinguishing Mexican, Argentine, and Iberian Spanish, or Egyptian, Syrian, and Lebanese Arabic. On the surface, these varieties might look alike but their differences are essential.
Similarly, when in France a book is translated from American English, they call it Américaine.
Needless to say, in the United States we frequently avoid giving credit for innovation and other matters to foreigners. Maybe we should consider putting off our blinders for once to embrace the approach. It strikes me at once as sharp and commonsensical.
Linguists nowadays talk about American English, Australian English, British English, Canadian English, and so on, each defined by its own idiosyncratic elements. American English is the globe’s lingua franca, with 1.5 billion speakers worldwide, either natives or using it as a second language. In contrast, there are about 1.1 billion Mandarin Chinese speakers, the vast majority native.
Given the role the United States plays in science, technology, business, education, and the arts, by far the most important variety within English is American. Yet, more than four centuries since the Mayflower, the English language has undergone a metamorphosis in these shores. Although no statistics exist, if John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, was to return from the dead to listen to a mundane conversation on the Boston Commons, he would probably not understand half—and likely less—of it.
The same goes for Alexis de Tocqueville, the aristocratic French political scientist (shall we call him a journalist?). After traveling through the United States in 1831 to survey our prison system, Tocqueville wrote a probing account of our system of government, Democracy in America. The English language he encountered, and into which his masterpiece was translated, dates back to before the Civil War. He wouldn’t understand words like Oxycontin, airplane, Latinx, telegenic, GOAT, or microchip.
And would Frederick Douglas, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Zora Neale Hurston know what we mean by woke? Or Cesar Chavez by DREAMer?
Language is not only shaped by time; it is time itself. The constant of language—and nature as a whole—is change: to survive, any language needs to adapt to new circumstances. Yet it’s possible, in our country, linguistic change might actually be more intense. We are a nation of immigrants. People come from every corner. In fact, it has been said that of the more than 7,100 languages currently alive, most of them have at least one speaker in the United States.
Add to our immigration history and the tradition of foreign visitors surveying our land the speed with which our nation has gone from an awkward colonial outpost in the 17th century to universal domination. This evolution entails a deep reservoir of verbal malleability. For better or worse, our most versatile imperial tool is our language. It thrives by borrowing and lending from other habitats, in the process transforming them into our own cultural subsidiaries.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Latin fractured to give birth to Vulgar Latin and then into the Romance languages. While they share a foundation, the Romance languages are discrete and independent. English, rooted in the Ingvaeonic languages brought from the mid-5th to 7th centuries AD by Anglo-Saxon migrants to Britain from what is northwest Germany, southern Denmark and the Netherlands, isn’t suffering a similar kind of fracture. Yet its distinctiveness, particularly in America, requires that it be seen as a constellation of possibilities.
In short, the emphasis in the name American English is in the adjective American, which is synonymous with pragmatism, adaptability, and resourcefulness. Doing so doesn’t betray its ancestry, since it is common knowledge that America was a colony of England. This demonym will in turn allow other Englishers to be recognized for their own locales.
American: let’s call it that.
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