Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Today, I’d like to discuss a post made on a news forum that I stumbled across recently. I’ll reproduce it in its entirety below, and then discuss it. (Here’s the original source):

Speak English, Your In America Now

We, the Legal American workers of the USA, need to stand together NOW, to keep English as our only native language.
Foreigners are saturating the USA & are slowly trying to modify our national language to include Spanish, so it will be easier for them to live & work in this country.
Qualified US citizens who need to support their families are being refused employment in their own country because they don’t speak Spanish. This is happening on a daily basis. The unemployment rate is up and the government offices are making suggestions that we learn Spanish so we can get jobs.
This is wrong & something needs to be done. If we do nothing, in 10 years we will all need to know Spanish and have to push 2 to hear it in English! Please help stop the madness before it goes any farther.
We can not allow any modification of our national language.
We need stronger laws which require resident & citizen applicants to learn English in order to live & work in the USA. If not, than these companies that deal with non speaking English patrons, need to hire an interpreter and pay them what the average interpreter makes. To force the “legal” US citizen to speak a new language is Discrimination based on language.
We need new laws created to protect the English speaking citizens of the USA from any discrimination (like employment, housing, etc.)
Amnesty should only be given if the parties are willing to learn English and help change their family members coming over or who are already here.
Petition to NOT modify our native language to include any foreign language
Petition for stronger laws requiring all residents & citizens to learn & speak English in order to live & work in the USA.
Petition for new laws protecting US citizens who are refused employment in the USA simply because they do nospeak a foreign language.
Petition for new laws protecting the English speaking citizens of the USA from any form of discrimination (employment, housing, etc.).
We would like to thank Verizon Wireless for taking the first steps in realizing that we shouldn’t have to push one for English, it should be a given.
If you agree, take a stand & sign the petition.

Painful grammatical errors

Here at LinguisticMystic, I do my best never to mock people for grammatical mistakes. I’ll certainly comment on them, and when they’re particularly funny, I’ll share a laugh. However, in general, I think that one’s ability to adhere to an arbitrary set of “rules” set out for us by the richest group of language users shouldn’t be a category of judgment.

As many of you likely noticed, the author of this post mixed up the 2nd person possessive (your) and the identical-sounding yet differently spelled contraction of “you are” (you’re). This is often a problem because, as I said, they sound identical when spoken aloud, but in writing, there’s a very large difference between the possessive (“I saw your mom”) and the contraction (“You’re a mom”).

Now, I’m not pointing this out to attack the author as a person, or suggest that she’s uneducated. Instead, I’m pointing it out because this is a wonderful example of one of the few times when having impeccable grammar IS relevant and necessary. In some contexts, a badly placed grammatical error can significantly injure an argument, and the author’s your/you’re mixup here is one of these examples.

This error occurred only two words into a rather lengthy rant about how terrible it is that people aren’t using English and how English is going downhill. This particular error in this particular context is a lot like somebody standing up to give a speech on animal rights while wearing a fur coat. If you’re going to give this speech, you need to prove that you’re a good person to trust on matters of the English language, and this simple little grammatical error threw that all away.

However, this particular error isn’t the only thing of linguistic interest in this rant.

Official English sillyness

I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit when the author said that “in 10 years, we’ll all need to know Spanish and push 2 to hear it in English”. This is unrealistic for a number of reasons, but not the least of which is the assumption that the tide could turn in 10 years, in either direction.

I consider myself to be nearly fluent in Spanish. I suspect that, if dropped in the middle of Mexico City, I could likely survive quite well, albeit with the normal crop of grammatical errors. I’ve never lived abroad, although I’ve traveled to Spanish speaking countries on a few occasions and worked in a number of Spanish speaking environments. I’ve gotten this degree of language mastery the American way, by learning the language in isolation in classrooms from a young age. How long did this take? Roughly 8 years of Spanish through Middle school, High school, and College.

Now, keep in mind, I adore grammar. I love it. I truly enjoyed these classes, and didn’t particularly slack. It’s just that, well, getting good with a language takes time. Sure, it could be shortened with immersion classes and living abroad, but I’d like to think I’ve had a pretty average language education.

For me and my flexible young brain, it took me eight years. Just imagine if a monolingual fifty year old was “forced” to learn Spanish. According to Wikipedia, around 82% of people in the US speak English only at home. Even if an evil Spanish-speaking conspiracy literally forced everybody in the country to learn Spanish, it’d likely be at least 10 or 15 years before most people could use it as a primary language.

However, that’s not going to happen. An 82% majority doesn’t just drop their native language without a gun to their heads, especially when it would require years of expensive and difficult schooling. Not to mention that English is probably the fastest growing language in the world, and it’s a prestige-language for many.

So, I’m quite tempted to say that the author here is appealing to the “defend the fatherland” attack-when-threatened instincts of the masses, rather than to any sort of logic. These fear based arguments are (sadly) pretty common these days, but to a linguist, this one is just plain silly.

When it comes to sillyness, though, there’s one statement that takes the cake.

Enjoy your cooked circles of Freedom-Flour

In her little petition, the author proposes one of the most ridiculous ideas that I’ve heard in a while:

Petition to NOT modify our native language to include any foreign language

Whoa there, Mrs. Official English. This is a bit of a tall order, as forbidding any further borrowing of words from other languages is a bit ridiculous. As I’ve discussed before, English is ripe with borrowings from Spanish, French, Latin, Greek, and even Arabic.

So, to categorically forbid the borrowing of new words into English from other languages would be inconvenient and juvenile. We’d be forced to come up with new words for all the items we might absorb from other cultures. Thus, rather than being able to simply use the word “tortilla” (from Spanish), we’d have to come up with a new word for it. Perhaps we could just use a compound word (“Thin flour-bread”). Maybe we could just make a new, English-sounding word for it. Or, maybe we can take a page from the US House of Representatives’ playbook and come up with a nice, jingoistic name for them. I suggest “cooked circles of Freedom-Flour”.

However, even if we were to start creating English words for everything, it really wouldn’t help what she’s afraid of. As Shakespeare points out, a rose by any other name will smell just as sweet, and no matter what you call a new idea or item from another culture, it’ll still affect our own culture. Sure, you’ll avoid having any foreign words, but if you’re still importing foreign items into our society, I suspect she’d still think our culture was “in danger”.

So, sure, you could try and bind the language (impossible) in such a way that it won’t absorb foreign words (unfortunate), but really, all you’d be doing is halting the progress of English, and weakening the language. Really, if this author succeeded, she’d probably just end up hurting English and making other, less hogtied languages seem more attractive.

Relax, Breathe. Your English is safe

I’ve used this quote several times before, and I’ll use it again: A language user trying to prevent language change is like a gardener trying to prevent continental drift. Every time these official English people stand up and yell, it becomes more apparent that it’s completely futile. English is going to do precisely what it’s going to do, and all the ranting and cute little laws in the world aren’t going to change that.

Even disregarding that futility, the fact remains that English isn’t going anywhere. Sure, more and more, it’ll be beneficial to be bilingual. Barring major wars, though, I don’t think there are any Native English speakers alive right now in the US who will have to completely switch to another language to survive here within their lifetime. Sure, English will change, but it’s not going away any time soon.

So, why do they keep arguing these points? Well, as I’ve said before, when people say nasty things about another language, it’s generally because they want to say nasty things about the people who use it, but are afraid to do so. I suspect that this too is another little bit of anti-immigrant or even racist sentiment that’s been dressed up in a little suit and clip-on tie and paraded around as a linguistic issue. Luckily, there are people who oppose it (notably including Senator John McCain and the Mayor of Nashville), and the proponents of these ideas remain on the fringe.

Next time you hear one of these people pop up yelling about saving English from those mean, nasty other languages, take a second to realize that it’s a really a linguistic non-issue. Make up your own mind on the subject, but just make sure that you rip off the false linguistic premises. Only once you’ve done that will you be completely aware of exactly what this sort of argument and mindset is supporting.

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