Lately, it seems that every time I turn on the news there’s some Anglo-American screaming at someone in a public place for speaking a language other than English, be it in a restaurant, parking lot, or even at a campground. Invariably, the English speaking person screams, “This is America! Speak English or get out!” while making threatening gestures.
As a cultural anthropologist and cultural linguist who speaks two of the most severely endangered languages on earth (and who wrote dictionaries of both languages)—and who was mentored by M.I.T. professor Ken Hale, one of the greatest linguists in history who spoke an unbelievable 50 languages at the time of his death—I can tell you a thing or two about such blatant racism. Yes, I said it. To scream at someone because they speak a language that you do not speak is racist, just as it is racist to threaten and demean another human being for the clothes they wear, a head scarf, or the color of their skin. Language and cultural identity are closely bound. If not one and the same, xenophobia and racism are certainly cousins. Like racism, it is a kind of hate and intolerance of “The Other.” I call this hatred of other languages xenolingohassen from the Greek xeno (foreign/strange) + the Latin lingua (language/lingo) + the German hassen (hate/hatred). This new term should not be confused with xenoglossophobia, which is a clinical anxiety related to hearing foreign languages.
Let me say this clearly: English is not better than any other language. Indeed, no language is better than any other language. The function of language is to communicate ideas and needs, concrete or abstract, to other members of a group. “I am hungry.” “Where’s the bathroom?” “Look out for the lion or snake in the grass.” “I love you.” Every language that has ever existed served that function (or else it was never a language in the first place). According to National Geographic, there are some 7,000 languages in the world today. English is not better than a single one of them. The number of words in the lexicon or the number of speakers of a language does not make one language better than another.
Map of world languages and language families
At the moment that Columbus set foot on North American soil (he never once set foot on the continent itself), it is estimated that there were some 1,000 indigenous languages in North America. There was probably that many or more in Central and South America. Recent research suggests that there may have been as many as sixty to one hundred million people living in the America’s at the time of Columbus’ arrival. Not a single person on the crew of the three sailing ships spoke English. Not a one. They all spoke Spanish or Portuguese.
After more than five hundred years, the indigenous populations were all but decimated to the point that only about half or less of the pre-contact indigenous languages still exist; and most of them are in danger of extinction. One of the two indigenous Alaska Native languages I speak only has a dozen surviving speakers. I am by three decades or more the youngest fluent Native speaker, which means I will most likely be the last person alive who speaks it some day in the near future. Such fate is not rare. Every year, some twenty-five languages in the world go extinct. Back home in Alaska, I witnessed the slow extinction of Eyak, an unrelated, neighboring language. (Photo of John Smelcer and Ahtna Chief Fred Ewan working on Ahtna language dictionary, Gulkana, Alaska, July 1996)
Spanish had a foothold in America long before English. The first European communities in America were not Jamestown, Virginia or Plymouth, Massachusetts (a Native American word) as every school child is wrongly taught, but St. Augustine, Florida, which was established by the Spanish in 1565, more than half a century before either of the two English-speaking communities established by the passengers aboard the Mayflower. In point of fact, at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Spanish had been spoken in portions of southwestern North America for almost two hundred years. The first Spanish-speaking settlement in New Mexico was established in 1598, nine years before the Pilgrims landed in Virginia or Massachusetts. Spanish’s roots in America are as deep, or deeper, than the roots of English.
By the time America became a nation in 1776, French was already spoken all over parts of the country, especially along the Mississippi River. New Orleans is French as is St. Louis. Many of America’s rivers are derived from Native American languages, including the Mississippi. In fact, more than half of all states in the United States are named after Native American words including Alaska, Texas, Connecticut, Arizona, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Iowa, Wisconsin, Utah, and Hawaii. As a member of a Native tribe, it has always intrigued me how America got rid of most Native Americans, yet gladly kept the Native place names. The same can be said of Australia.
Recently, while waiting at the local Department of Motor Vehicles, I overheard a farmer criticizing a Black couple for speaking a foreign language while awaiting their turn in line. The couple was Congolese. They spoke French. The irony is that English is in large part French. After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 C.E., a great many words in English were borrowed from Latin and Old French, including most of the words we use in talking about the military (lieutenant, captain, major, colonel, general, corporal, sergeant, commander, platoon, esprit de corps, brigadier, battalion, salute, etc.) and words related to government and law (congress, senate, senator, legislature, legislator, governor, president, election, vote, veto, diplomat, ambassador, indictment, arraignment, restitution, statute, depose, testimony, magistrate, jury, juris prudence, mea culpa, intestate, habeas corpus, venue, collusion, patriot, traitor, treason, etc.). Even the names of our nation’s most revered founding documents are of French origin: Constitution, Declaration, and Independence. Democracy itself comes from a foreign language (Greek). Most of our words related to religion are borrowed from other languages (Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, denomination, congregation, deacon, minister, preacher, priest, altar, pew, baptismal, hymnal, sermon, homily, missionary, chapel, synagogue, etc.). The word religion itself comes from Latin (religare) to Old French (religio) to English (religion). The names of many of our favorite foods and words related to cooking comes from other languages: pizza, lasagna, spaghetti, ravioli, pepperoni, salami, chocolate, bratwurst, sauerkraut, tortellini, baguette, bagel, taco, burrito, salsa, sushi, chili, salad, crouton, cabbage, potato, tomato, carrot, celery, apple, pumpkin, onion, chef, sous chef, etc. (don’t forget all your favorite dishes from Chinese, Korean, and Indian restaurants), not to mention our favorite beverages: liquor, wine, champagne, and, thanks to European monks, beer. Even America’s national food—apple pie—comes from German apfel and Dutch appel.
I later asked that farmer at the DMV what his last was. As a linguist, I recognized it immediately as being of Italian derivation. He affirmed the fact and told me how his grandparents both immigrated to America from Sicily and that neither spoke a word of English. Italian and French are both linguistically related as Romance languages. I like to think that backward-thinking farmer came to recognize his error regarding the French speakers he had demeaned.
One of the real ironies is how for more than a century, American high schools teach foreign languages like French, Spanish, Latin, and German. For more than a century, American universities have required a foreign language requirement in order to earn a degree, regardless of the discipline. Some require more than one. It can be argued that while Ignorance squats in the darkness of its irrationality, Enlightenment embraces awareness and appreciation of other languages.
Some years ago, a California congresswoman at a rally in support of a proposition to make English the official language of the state was holding up a Bible and shouting, “If English is good enough for the Bible then it’s good enough for America!” She was certainly not the first person to make such an ignorant statement. I hope you are informed enough to see her folly. The Bible was not written in English. It was translated into English just as it has been translated into hundreds of other world languages. (I have personally been asked to translate passages from the Bible into one of the Native languages I speak.) Not a single biblical character spoke English. Not a word.
If one is to take the Bible on its face, as many are prone to, then Jesus spoke more than one language. The New Testament story of Jesus’s interview with Pontius Pilate is proof of the fact. According to the Bible, Pontius Pilate and Jesus had a private discussion about whether or not Jesus claimed to be the King of the Jews, as has been reported, and whether or not he was inciting rebellion against Rome (Pax Romana). Pontius Pilate most certainly did not care to learn Aramaic (the extinct language Jesus spoke), or any of the then-common languages of Judea. It would be beneath his high station. Indeed, Romans saw indigenous languages as being the unintelligible grunts of animals, particularly dogs. Our word barbarian comes from the Latin word for “barking sounds of a dog.” The New Testament makes no mention that a translator was present to translate the conversation between the two men. If one is to believe the biblical account, then Jesus must have spoken the Vulgate Latin of Rome. Therefore, Jesus was bilingual.
To mirror the words of that uniformed California congresswoman brandishing a Bible: if speaking other languages was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for his followers.
English did not descend on America from Heaven. God does not love English and revile other languages. English is a conglomeration of many languages which it came into contact with over more than a thousand years. It is a mongrel, a linguistic mutt. It is not the greatest language on earth; nor is it the worst. It is a language.
Although this article is about xenophobia and intolerance of “The Other” in America, it is relevant wherever the falsity of nationalism is prevalent.
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Aside from speaking two severely endangered Alaska Native languages, Dr. John Smelcer also speaks Swedish. When he taught in Moscow in the fall of 1994, he learned to speak and read Russian. He also studied Old English. Language often influences his writing, including in his novels Stealing Indians and Lone Wolves. His poetry book Beautiful Words: The Complete Ahtna Poems (Truman State University Press, 2011) represents the only published literature in his Native language in existence. Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker wrote forewords to it. Learn more at www.johnsmelcer.com