Anglophone Ideology and English-Only Politics
Issue #31, March 1997
The American language, which has never been as dominant in the world as it is today, is in the midst of complete domestic collapse. Or so, at least, readers of USA Today learned from a recent top-of-the-headlines special report. Superimposed on a photograph of the fracturing head of the Statue of Liberty, emblematic of both immigration and American freedom, the headlines blared a frustrated query: "The Politically Incorrect Question of the 1990s: Can't Anyone Here Speak English?" Clearly uncomfortable with the history of intolerance embedded in that question, the special report's subtitle — "Exploring the hidden costs of the nation's language gap" — pursued economic rationales to legitimate its inquiry.
Given USA Today's characteristic prose style of single-sentence paragraphs, repetitious simple verbs, and meat-hatchet job on complex clausal structures of the most modest sort, it is clear that the paper's journalists do not speak English at all. They speak the American language, the tongue of clear facts cleanly delivered in truncated synopsis, the unambiguous dialect of Babbitt's Main Street. The designation of 'English' is a leftover habit of philologic history. H.L. Mencken located the first American neologism in a seventeenth-century English sea-captain's complaint about the "barbarism" of the word 'bluff' (referring to river bluffs), and it is a neologism whose irony should haunt those with a faith in English-as-it-should-be. In another sense of the word, the American language has long been based on a bluff of ownership. That English sea-captain's complaint concerned a loss of language control and an irritation that other folks used the language differently. English was beginning to die on the American continent in the seventeenth century, and we have inhabited its corpse for quite awhile now.
When USA Today beats on its language-based version of an anti-immigration drum, the true complaint is 'Why don't they speak American the way we do, with the fluency we claim as a birthright?' The "hidden costs" have much less to do with the national economy, and far more to do with the same agenda that has driven California's Proposition 187, the militarization of the Rio Grande border, and Silicon Valley's legislative interest in high-tech labor immigration protections. The English language becomes an enabling mechanism through which to drain away entire medical school classes from countries that cannot afford to supply American inner cities with well-trained but cheap physicians: yet such language costs remain over the horizon and uncalculated. Language, labor force formation, immigration preferences, and the demands of contemporary capital all intermingle.
Economic formulations like these are the frustrated expressions of a dominant consumerism that wants better service. Thus the question of cost does not center on why Hindi-speaking programmers on temporary work visas construct the guts of software in cheap motel rooms, but rather why the Spanish-speaking woman cleaning at the Hyatt doesn't respond adequately to requests. That is to say, the supposed comforts of linguistic conformity and responsiveness in a service economy, not real economic costs, are the true center of the 'why can't they speak English' question. Although an economist might claim that "Poor English skills among foreign-born residents cost more than $175 billion a year in lost productivity, wages, tax revenue and unemployment compensation," this is the intellectual artifact of cultural discomfort searching out empirical rationales for self-justification. The point of what the nation gains from non-American speakers remains entirely unexamined in this weak excuse for a national accounts argument.
Even as USA Today imputes with the false bravado of power that its headline question is politically incorrect, it nonetheless manages to imply a good political question: is the language that America speaks in question?
It is, and it's about time. By this I do not refer to the prevalence of American language fluency, which is as high or higher than ever compared over the last two centuries. Rather, the American language as a natural nexus of power is being questioned increasingly, and monolingual patriotic irritation shows. Twenty-three states now have some version of English-only legislation, and more such proposals arrive constantly. Calls have circulated for a constitutional amendment confirming English as the country's official language.
This small wave of English-only legislation, with its assault on the unconscionable prospect of linguistic tolerance and minority accomodation, derives from a paradoxical insecurity as American hegemonism achieves its climax at the end of the American Century. Time Magazine-inspired worries from the 1960s about Bombay students named Nikita and studying Russian are laughable in retrospect. The nervousness engendered by world-system competition has been domesticated, emerging as a public fear that since substantial enemies are no longer found without, non-English-speaking mobs within will alienate America from its essential identity. American memory prefers to forget that its anglophone identity was built atop the ruins of the rich reservoirs of native North American language systems. America has a certain experience with world system competition through language.
Global propagation of American cultural models and icons implicitly relies on a domestic solidification of those same models, and from the perspective of identity commodification, non-English-speaking can only be understood as Americanness-in-progress. Where non-anglophone Americans resist that imposed integrative contract, they contradict national purposes in the eyes of 'irritated' citizens who predicate civic entitlement on language abilities. Non-anglophones inadvertantly become Gramscian 'bad subjects,' or those who have not acquired the language code for proper self-governance, whether through lack of educational opportunity, free after-work hours, or simply because of the comforts of personal inclination. As 'bad subjects,' they become the focus of coercive language initiatives.
The English-only movement and its advocacy of a monolithic public language culture provide reverse testimony to a prevailing American language nervousness. This xenophobic impulse relies on the specification of an internal 'threat' language in place of now-defeated oppositional ideologies located at a remote foreign remove. We might well question how and why Spanish came to occupy this unpleasant position, in contrast to, say, German and its two-century long American literary tradition that basically came to an end in 1917. Language villification often enough serves as an unspoken substitute for antagonistic racialization.
English-only politics, despite their protestations of pluralism, are the natural home forfictions of American corporate whiteness. The American and English languages, when spoken in privileged accents, often serve as a proxy for whiteness, granting limited de-racialization for those who conform to certain norms. Ethnic communal vernaculars, on the other hand, demarcate racializations; 'standard' English designates whiteness. Thus the question "Can't anyone here speak English?" is directed just as often at the language habits of blacks and Hispanics as those of immigrants. The American/English languages, rooted and bound to one source of immigration, come to specify a naturalized cultural hierarchy, not a common heritage. When a white supremicist hero of Thomas Dixon's infamous novel The Clansman wants to end Reconstruction policies and reassert a white-over-black hierarchy, he argues "The children of the breed of men who speak the tongue of Burns and Shakespeare, Drake and Raleigh, have been disarmed and made subject to the black spawn of an African jungle!" Civilizational arguments for the English language are, in the end, no more than late echoes of earlier American racialisms.
Precisely those racialisms have emerged in a new breed of nativist argument that employs the American language as a measure of assimilative conformity. Peter Brimelow, whose best-selling Alien Nation has established his leadership in this xenophobic school of argument, rejoices at the idea of rigorously enforcing English-language proficiency as a criterion in order to reduce immigration and deny citizenship, particularly among Hispanics. As an English literature teacher, I am compelled to rejoin that without grandfathering provisions, equal application of such a criterion would result in deportation hearings for more than a few native-born American students. Brimelow, an immigrant from England himself, wallows about asserting an intrinsic white racial construction to American culture and accuses advocates of cultural pluralism of "breaking down white America's sense of identity." For such as Brimelow and his National Review comrades, the language of race appears ever-present in their antagonistic discussions of non-anglophone immigration. In so many words, for these neo-nativists the English language serves as a proxy color bar.
"Can't anyone here speak English?" is a nervous question, a fear of new possibilities in an already-present mobile future where distinctions between nationalism and transnationalism increasingly fail, and where poly-cultural origins and geographically diverse families are common. English-only ideology articulates fears generated by a Herderian association of civilizational language with race as it confronts contemporary identity fluidities. It is an ideology that fingers language as the root of social cohesion and posits massive anti-English national heteroglossia where none exists. The ideology falsely rehistoricizes American linguistic behavior as a smoothly assimilative process based on a spirit of cooperative voluntarism among new citizens; rather, limited English-speaking and second-generation native language retention have been common. My mother, for example, whose sharp-tongued command of English eventually sufficed just fine for an Ivy League law school, was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, where she spoke only Yiddish until she entered public school at age six. Her childhood experience was and is being repeated continually among America's immigrant communities. The "can't anyone speak....." question ignores the unavoidable practical reality that every non-anglophone in America knows: sooner or later, the American language will be spoken.
Most crucially, the American language — like every language — must be understood as a nuanced cultural ideology as much as communicative method. English-only legislation elaborates an 'on-pain-of' ideology of language coercion; it attempts to render an hospitable and rich language into an official cultural monolith. English by force is an alien tongue: we speak a free language. So, in answer to USA Today's peeved question -no, we can't speak English.
Joe Lockard — whose children, Jessica and David, are irresistably bilingual — is a doctoral candidate in American literature at University of California, Berkeley. He can be reached at Joe.Lockard@asu.edu.