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showing results for: July, 2008

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  • Defending the language with bullets: If you can read this in English, thank a soldier

    "It's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

    Barack Obama

    The bumper sticker on the back of a construction worker’s pickup truck caught my eye: "If you can read this, thank a teacher . . . ."

    This homage to education wasn't what I expected from someone whose bitterness typically manifests itself in vehicle art celebrating guns and religion, but there was more: "If you can read this in English, thank a soldier."

    Bumper sticker:

    It was a "support our troops" bumper sticker that takes language and literacy out of the classroom and puts them squarely in the hands of the military.

    It's one thing to say that we owe our national security and the survival of the free world to military might. It's something else again to be told that we need soldiers to protect the English language.

    But according to this bumper sticker, any chink in our armor, any relaxation of our constant vigilance, any momentary lowering of the gun barrel, and we'll all be speaking Russian, Iraqi, or even Mexican.

     In 1967, war protester puts flowers in gun barrels of troops 

    Flower power worked in 1967, when a hippie put flowers in the rifle barrels of National Guard troops, but disarm soldiers today and you'll be kissing English good-bye.

    Supporters of official English argue that it's the language of democracy -- the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, not to mention the "Star-Spangled Banner," "American Idol" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" (it doesn't matter that Millionaire was a British show first, since Americans were British once themselves). English, goes the claim, is the "social glue" cementing the many cultures that underlie American culture. As Teddy Roosevelt said back in 1918, "This is a nation, not a polyglot boarding house."

    Excerpt from New York Times in which Theodore Roosevelt says,

    Excerpt from the New York Times report of a wartime speech by former president Theodore Roosevelt in May, 1918, in Iowa City. Iowa's governor, William Harding, had just banned the use of all foreign languages in public anywhere in the state.

    But apparently even the official language laws that states, cities, schools and businesses have put in place aren’t doing the job, so what we really need is to put a gun to people's heads to make them use English.

    Only that won't work. The large number of translators killed in Iraq, or drummed out of the army for being gay, are two of the many indicators that our armies aren't keeping the world safe for English.

    The linguist Max Weinreich is credited with quipping that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. But guns can’t literally keep a language safe at home any more than they can effectively seal a border to keep other languages out.

    In a bold act of regime change and a glaring breach of homeland security, French streamed across the English borders in the 11th century along with the Norman armies, but French soldiers were unable to convert most of the Brits they encountered to the parlez-vous, at least not in the long term.

    And while the Royal Navy helped spread English around the globe as part and parcel of the British Empire, what really undergirds English today as an international language isn't military might, but the appeal of global capitalism, science, computer technology, t-shirts, and good old rock 'n' roll. 

    A t-shirt from Japan with unusual English on it 

    It didn't take an army to make English all the rage on t-shirts in Japan

    Immigrants coming to the United States are learning some English; their children are learning a lot of English; their children's children are speaking almost nothing but English. And the only soldiering involved in the process is when the immigrants or their children join the Army.

    On the other hand, the military is more frequently associated with suppressing language than with protecting it. Remember the World War II slogan, "Loose lips sink ships"?  Wartime is all about not talking in any language.

    WW II WPA poster advocating wartime censorship 

    This WPA poster from the Library of Congress "American Memory" collection is one of many counseling Americans to keep "mum" during the war (that was World War II).

    Which is why it's even more important to keep language a matter of civil rights, not a military issue. Yes, it's important to support the troops. But the freedom to use language, any language, even an immigrant language, is even more vital to the nation in times of war or other crises, when every language including English seems like the language of the enemy, and when it's easier to feel antipathy towards immigrants and others who seem outside the mainstream, than it is in those rare moments when things are going just fine and it seems o.k. to let people say whatever they want in the language of their choice.

    A WWII poster protecting civil liberties in times of crisis

    This WPA poster advertises a lecture in Iowa by Max Lerner, who was skeptical about the military's desire to "protect" our linguistic rights.

SamuelRiv@gmail.com Aug 6, 2008 8:26 pm

Military might, as you've said, seems to have little control over the prevalence of a language. I would argue that cultural supremacy - economically or, in this century, scientifically - have done better to transform national language identity. After all, the British empire was first and foremost a trade empire in India (though in other places, sheer mass of colonists helped, too).

But I keep thinking of what helped propel American English to international dominance: physics (yes, political leadership and having enough troops to have bases in occupied territories helped too, but physics is all I'm well-read on). In the decades before World War 2, physics discourse was dominated by the Germans. It was only after we got the prewar and postwar brain drain from the occupied powers and, indeed, most of the damaged nations of the war, that English really took off as the language of scientific discourse. Of course, on the other side of the world, we competed with Russian and Chinese, but winning the Cold War certainly clinched that battle. Now you're hard-pressed to find even a mid-class scientific paper that isn't at least translated into English.

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