1. Book banning is one way to regulate language, but 2010 saw one school district take censorship even further, banning a dictionary because it contained words of a sexual nature. The district later relented, allowing students to look up words, but only if they had a signed permission slip from their parents. Such actions underline the common belief that language is too dangerous a phenomenon to go unchecked.
3. And speaking of warrantless surveillance, 2010 was the year of the language police world-wide. Authorities in Estonia went after Russian-speaking teachers, and their Slovak counterparts were hot on the trail of violations of that country’s official language law. In the “it can’t happen here” department, Arizona threatened to oust teachers from their classrooms if they spoke English with an accent, despite the fact that all speakers of English speak with an accent. The ACLU filed suit because the TSA bumped a student for traveling with Arabic flash cards. And a Jewish student was pulled off a plane in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, for praying in Hebrew.
4. That’s because language is tied up with national identity. In 2010, Arizona’s new immigration law authorized police to stop anyone suspected of being “not from around here” and demand proof they were in the U.S. legally, which meant that anyone caught speaking Spanish in the state, or Arabic, or Hebrew, or anyone speaking English with an accent, or anyone whose tan did not come from real or bottled Arizona sunshine, could be stopped and deported if they weren’t carrying a valid passport or birth certificate, which most Americans don't carry around with them.
5. The year gone by saw political language reach new highs as well as lows. President Obama continued to elevate the level of political discourse with words like “sanctimonious” or “shellacking,” which sent Americans running to their dictionaries, while the president’s political opponents shrieked that it was unconstitutional to require Americans to have big vocabularies, which in turn caused William F. Buckley, an architect of modern conservatism known for his use of polysyllables, to roll over in his grave. In contrast, conservatives defended Sarah Palin’s use of non-words like “refudiate” and Christine O’Donnell’s ignorance of the First Amendment as exactly the kind of know-nothingism the country needs to put it on a sound footing in the information-rich 21st century. And Tea Partiers, who want government out of our private lives, called on the federal government to make everyone speak English.
6. Speaking of speaking English, the English Language Unity Act, a bill to make English the official language of the United States, failed yet again to make it out of committee in Congress. The bill, intended to defend English, a language which needs no defense, requires government employees to speak English; mandates English on ballots; and requires anyone wishing to become a citizen to be able to understand the English of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and all federal laws, not that the Bill’s sponsors understand all these documents. H.R. 997 also gives private citizens the right to sue to obtain relief if they have been harmed by a government employee not speaking English to them, despite the fact that no one has ever been injured because a government employee did not speak English.
7. It’s not just Americans who consider their language sacred. English is so in demand around the world as the language of advancement that a human rights advocate in India has built a temple to the goddess English, adding her to the 330 million deities of the Hindu pantheon.
8. The internet itself was part of the language news of the year. Critics continued to complain that too many writers were putting too much junk into cyberspace; that it gives people a voice who have nothing to say; that Wikipedia, with its policy of “write first and ask questions later,” threatens to dilute human knowledge instead of increasing it; that when we search the internet for information we are trading accuracy for speed. All of this is true, but that doesn’t stop the ’net from expanding, and it hasn’t discouraged anyone from surfing.
9. English, once an insignificant language spoken by a handful of people on a tiny island in the North Sea, has grown to be the global language of diplomacy and trade, science and technology, the internet and rock ’n roll. Now that English is a global language, with nonnative speakers outnumbering native speakers, it's taking on a life of its own in non-English-speaking countries, and the question of correctness, of who owns English, is taking on a new spin. In Spain, for example, an advertising campaign sparked debate over whether the slogan “Yes, we want!” is bad English or simply transplanted English modified to fit its new surroundings. Ownership of language became an issue “at home” as well when Facebook tried to trademark all uses of the word “face.” Apple went a step farther, patenting an application designed to control our linguistic behavior: it would censor obscene or offensive words in text messages while doubling as a foreign-language tutor with the power to require, for example, “that a certain number of Spanish words per day be included in e-mails for a child learning Spanish.” Although privatizing English in this way fits the Tea Party agenda, it’s not clear how conservatives reconcile language deregulation with their demand that language laws be enacted and enforced.
10. Along with monitoring our language use, enforcing good grammar remained an issue in 2010: in a rare instance of grammatical violence, an English teacher was forcefully ejected from a Starbucks for refusing to deploy what she regarded as incorrect English in response to an employee’s question. And 2010 saw the third annual celebration of National Grammar Day, “an imperative . . . . to speak well, write well, and help others do the same!” Despite the global reach of English, for the third year in a row National Grammar Day came and went unnoticed. Because, when it comes to language, everyone wants to be correct, but no one wants to be corrected, which means that, so far as National Grammar Day goes, most people could care less.
We close the book on 2010 knowing knowing full well that none of these issues is going away any time soon. To keep abreast of these and other top language stories, keep reading the Web of Language.