English or Spanish in the USA: opinions

Damien Hall halldj at babel.ling.upenn.edu
Sun Mar 7 19:52:50 UTC 2004

>>From the American Dialect Society e-mail list.  I haven't read the original
(Huntington) article about which comment is being made.

Damien Hall
University of Pennsylvania



In the latest issue of Foreign Policy, Samuel P. Huntington writes that unless
the US returns to its Anglo-Protestant, anglophone roots, it faces collapse.
His target is Hispanic Americans. I've written the essay below, which I'm
shopping around, as a response. I'm sending it to the ads-l fyi, and any
comments are welcome.


"Spanish, English, and the New Nativism"
by Dennis Baron

Linguistic nativism – the kind that says, “Speak English or go back where you
came from” – is a long-standing and regrettable American tradition. It’s also
unnecessary. No matter how hard minority language speakers work to preserve
their speech, they face an inexorable shift to English. That was true of German
in the past, and it’s true of Spanish today. Eighteenth-century nativists like
Benjamin Franklin accused German Americans of taking jobs away from English
workers, of speaking a debased dialect of their own language, and of refusing
to learn English. But it wasn’t long before the Germans, and just about
everyone else who didn’t speak English, abandoned their heritage languages.

Today there is a popular perception that English, the language that dominates
the entire world, is endangered at home. The new nativists see Spanish as the
enemy. They are wrong: while Spanish has eclipsed German as the leading
minority language spoken in this country, the 2000 Census reports that 92% of
all Americans over five years old have no difficulty speaking English.

But Americans who speak only English, as most do, tend to see other languages as
threats. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the governor of Iowa, in
his own version of the Patriot Act, struck out at the German enemy, forbidding
the use of any foreign language in public. The number of Hispanics in Iowa
doubled between 1990 and 2000, and fearing a Spanish invasion, in 2002 Iowa
became the twenty-seventh state to make English its official language. But
English in Iowa needs no protection: only 2.9% of Iowa’s population are Spanish
speakers, and over half of them speak English very well.

English is secure as the language of American government, education, and
commerce. But Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington is only the latest scare monger to
argue otherwise. In the current issue of Foreign Policy, Huntington warns that
“the values, institutions, and culture” of the creators of America – white
Protestant speakers of English – are rapidly losing ground to multiculturalism
and diversity. Adding academic cachet to the new nativism that calls Miami a
foreign country and the American Southwest, North Mexico, Huntington laments
that Hispanic immigrants, unlike other groups, retain their heritage language
and pose a threat not just to English, but to American stability. He warns that
the only way for Hispanics to buy into America without tearing it apart is to
learn English: “There is no Americano dream. There is only the American dream
created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that
dream and in that society only if they dream in English.”  [“The Hispanic
Challenge,” Foreign Policy (March/April, 2004), pp. 30-45].

Huntington concedes that America no longer defines itself as exclusively white
and Protestant, but he insists that the Anglo-Protestant creed, the American
dream embodied in the English of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and
the other founding documents, is something that non-English speakers are just
not going to understand. Languages around the world carry the burdens of
national or religious ideology, and English is no exception: it’s the language
of representative democracy, of global capitalism, of rock ‘n’ roll. But that
doesn’t mean that freedom, business and music can’t be expressed in other
languages as well.

Huntington charges that unlike other groups, Hispanics oppose official-English
laws, that even when their socioeconomic status improves, Hispanics hold on to
Spanish, slowing their educational progress and ultimately, their assimilation.
He suggests shutting off Mexican immigration to solve the language problem,
facilitate assimilation, and preserve the union. A newly-diverse immigrant
community, rather than the current predominantly-Spanish-speaking one, would
once again adopt English as a common denominator, and the nation could return
to normal.

But English, already the common denominator, isn’t the undisputed property of
Anglo-Protestants. It’s a language that began in heathen Europe, traveled to
Celtic Britain, was leavened with the Latin of Irish monks, the Norse of Viking
raiders, and the French of Norman invaders intent on regime change. Even during
the brief Anglo-Protestant moment of Shakespeare and King James, English
swelled with borrowings from classical languages, Italian, and Spanish. Modern
English has absorbed words from Arabic, Hebrew, Native American languages,
Yiddish, Polish, Hindi, Bantu, and a host of tongues from Africa, Asia and the
Pacific. In turn the British, and later the Americans, exported English around
the globe, where local varieties of the language have gone native. In short,
English is culturally diverse enough to make an Anglo-Protestant switch to

Meanwhile, back home, even with the continuing influx of Spanish speakers to the
U.S., Hispanic Americans are losing their Spanish, many of them by the second
generation, considerably faster than the language loss of pre-World War I
immigrants. And they object to official-English laws like Iowa’s not because
they want to keep on speaking Spanish. It’s not the law that drives out the
language, but subtle social and economic pressure. Hispanics object to official
English legislation – as all Americans should – because such laws say, “We
don’t want you here.”

Dennis Baron                                         debaron at uiuc.edu
Dept. of English
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801
office: 217-244-0568
english dept.: 217-333-2390

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