Language Lounge

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No Spanish, Please. We're American.

No other great nation of today supports so large a foreign population as the United States, either relatively or absolutely; none other contains so many foreigners forced to an effort, often ignorant and ineffective, to master the national language.

H. L. Mencken in The American Language (1919)

A news story last month drew attention to the fact the the US Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) had brought a suit against a supermarket for their instructing employees to refrain from speaking Spanish in front of customers who were not Spanish speakers. The news is at once appalling and encouraging. Appalling because it suggests that someone thinks delicate English speakers need to be protected from the harsh and indecipherable sounds of another language. Encouraging because the EEOC, a federal agency, is prosecuting such a case, in an era in which many believe that policies promoting diversity, tolerance, and multiculturalism are out of favor.

The case was brought against an Albertson's supermarket in San Diego. Albertson's is owned by a large national grocery chain. San Diego is a large city that has a Spanish name, that sits on the US-Mexico border, and whose population is more than 25% of Hispanic origin. So it is strange indeed that there should have been an effort to suppress Spanish in an environment that ought to be quite accustomed to it. But from a historical perspective, perhaps the story is not so surprising, and simply represents the latest manifestation of a specter that has haunted the United States almost since its founding: the idea that English ought to be the first and official language of the United States, and that suppressing other languages in the pursuit of that goal has a basis in reason.

That news story is in fact not quite the latest manifestation of an English-only moment. While I have been working on this column, yet another report has emerged, about lawyer Aaron Schlossberg who went ballistic in a New York deli when he heard customers and staff conversing in Spanish. In a video (now gone viral), he berates the staff for speaking Spanish to customers and says they should be speaking English because "This is America." But it's also New York, one of the most linguistically diverse cities in the world, home to speakers of as many as 800 languages, and home to well over a million and a half Spanish speakers.

And only a few days later, a Border Patrol agent in Montana questioned a woman (an American citizen) for speaking Spanish at a convenience store. The agent thought it was "unusual" to hear Spanish there.

The United States does not have an official language, but English is the de facto national language. It's spoken (even if imperfectly) by a great majority of citizens and residents and it is ubiquitous in all public discourse, to the point that its absence in some public contexts might be marked as unusual or noteworthy. More than half of US states declare English as their official language. For all that, Spanish has unimpeachable credentials for being the second language in the United States: it's spoken by up to a fifth of its residents, and the size of the US Spanish-speaking population in the world is said by some to be second only to Mexico's. Public notices in many parts of the US appear in both English and Spanish. Telephone menus on customer service lines in both the public and private sector typically give an option for Spanish speakers.

The notion that languages other than English represent some kind of threat to Americans has taken different forms in different historical periods, but a common theme is that speakers of other languages may pose some kind of danger. A hundred years ago, almost to the month, as the United States' involvement in the first World War deepened, governor William Harding of Iowa issued a proclamation that all public addresses should be in English, and that "Conversation in public places, on trains and over the telephone should be in the English language." This was in response to the significant presence of German immigrants in Iowa and the fear that conspiratorial acts against the United States might be conducted in German and would therefore fly under the radar of those who could prevent them.

Closer to the present day, two different men have been removed from planes on two different airlines in the US for speaking Arabic. Here the perceived clear and present danger was an updated version of the one that worried early 20th-century Iowans: the enemy speaks another language and he might be using it against you. Americans didn't invent this form of linguistic discrimination—it is surely as old as history, a fact made clear by the Biblical account of the word shibboleth in the Hebrew Bible, Judges 12.

Many aspersions are cast toward Spanish speakers in the US today, in a fairly scattershot and prejudicial way, but it's not generally assumed or expressed that Spanish speakers constitute some kind of conspiratorial force. So what did the Albertson's managers have in mind by directing their Hispanic employees to squelch their most natural means of expression? Perhaps the EEOC case, as it unfolds, will bring that to light. On the face of it it's just an example of mindless linguistic imperialism, the notion that English, by virtue of the economic and cultural clout off its native speakers, ought to be imposed on all who come within the domain of its influence. In the case of lawyer Aaron Schlossberg, he clearly stated his view that since his tax dollars make it possible for Spanish speakers to live in New York, they should learn to speak English.

In southern Colorado there are a couple of purple mountain majesties, part of the Sangre de Cristo Range but separate from its main chain, and so quite prominent from a distance.

Photo © 2018 Orin Hargraves, all rights reserved

If you ask anyone local what their name is, they will say "Spanish Peaks". And indeed, if you drive by the mountains on their north side, along scenic US Highway 160, you won't have to ask what the mountains are called because a sign will tell you; a rather unusual sign, because it makes some attempt to document the career of the mountains' names. At the same time it delivers a snapshot of the colonial history of one little corner of North America. Here's the sign.

Photo © 2018 Orin Hargraves, all rights reserved

Humans have an instinct to name things. The first humans in the vicinity of these mountains whose language we know about were the Utes, a Native American tribe who called the mountains Wahatoya, which in their Uto-Aztecan language means "two breasts". Spanish explorers at the end of the 16th century were the next passers-through, and they—respectfully, perhaps—simply transliterated the Ute name into what was for them an orthographically friendly spelling: Huajatolla. The people that we now call the "Americans"—that is, people of European ancestry who immigrated to the New World starting in the early 17th century and to Colorado starting in the 19th century—gave a nod to the then most recent labelers of the mountains, the Spanish, but it's the "American" name of the mountains that now has top billing, and the earlier names are virtually unused, aside from their appearance on this sign.

Winners of cultural and economic wars, as well as bloodletting wars, have traditionally sought to impose their language on the vanquished. As H. L. Mencken observed nearly a hundred years ago, there aren't any obvious benefits to this practice. The government now seems to recognize this, and the public mostly does as well, judging by the blowback that Mr. Schlossberg has received. In traditionally monolingual societies like the United States, there's a persistent urge to fortify the narrow confines of the economic majority's linguistic comfort zone, but perhaps we are coming to a time when everyone is more amenable to languages coexisting, as they do on this sign.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Friday June 1st 2018, 7:02 AM
Comment by: Mary B.
Spanish Peaks may ultimately prove to be a prophetic name for these mountains. Stay tuned.
Friday June 1st 2018, 8:12 AM
Comment by: Pamela L.
Some people perceive Spanish being spoken in a workspace where not everyone is a Spanish speaker as rude. This may be a true conception or it may be an extrapolation of paranoia or insecurity on the part of the offended.
Friday June 1st 2018, 8:44 AM
Comment by: Leslie W.
For me, it would depend upon context and circumstance. Were I a Spanish-speaking salesperson who needed to communicate with a customer who spoke only Spanish, it would be unreasonable for a non-Spanish-speaking customer to take offense. If, however, I were a native Spanish speaker in a location where the predominant language was other than Spanish, and had an extended conversation with a fellow salesperson in that language in the presence of non-Spanish-speaking customers, I think they would be justified in perceiving it as rude.
Friday June 1st 2018, 10:29 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Robert: it is not a political forum, it is a column about any and all aspects of language. But as the author of the column, I do have some views, and I express them. What interests me about this linguistic situation is the general intolerance of Americans to multilingualism, despite its many advantages (see, for example, the Wikipedia article about multilingualism). Monolingualism is not the norm in the world and for anyone who lives in a multilingual society, there is nothing noteworthy (or rude) about overhearing a conversation in another language if nothing in that conversation is intended for you.

The Anglophone world tends to be largely monolingual, and more than necessarily intolerant, in my view, of other languages. I don't see any benefit arising from this intolerance, and that is the view that I am expressing. Of course, you and anyone are welcome to disagree and to express your own views.
Friday June 1st 2018, 10:44 AM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Orin as usual a thoughtful article. It was interesting to learn that English language sensitivity came about during WW I.

I always thought language sensitivity came about during WW II with all the propaganda movies. I remember the Dead End Kids being instructed to watch for people who talked different.

Friday June 1st 2018, 3:04 PM
Comment by: roger D.
Thanks Orin. Excellent discussion.
I live in Miami-Dade County,Florida where county notices (including ballots)
are in 3 languages:
Haitian Creole

English and Spanish are equally prevalent with a very large number of bilingual speakers. Many jobs that deal with the public (store clerks e.g.) require fluency in both languages. Viva America!
Friday June 1st 2018, 4:29 PM
Comment by: Ron S.
I am a native English speaker who would desperately love to know Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, mandarin, and arabic. Since when is less knowledge better than more?
Saturday June 2nd 2018, 10:14 AM
Comment by: Adele C. M. (Charlotte, NC)
I have noted over several decades that some "Americans" are very put off by people speaking other than English. I had always assumed it was just nosiness, feeling some type of "right" on their part to know what others were saying, although the others were not speaking to them in the first place. Given that many if not most people whose native language is not English nevertheless speak it, I find the English-only arrogance has already turned out to be to our detriment. Although I did have Latin in school which helped over the years in the medical field, I have otherwise felt severely deprived knowing only one language. I have strongly encouraged ESL people to not only hold on to their language, but also be absolutely certain to teach it to their children.
Saturday June 2nd 2018, 11:52 AM
Comment by: Bosse B. (Malmö Sweden)
In the queue at the grocery store a woman was speaking in a full voice on her cellphone – in another language. Right behind her was a man. After the woman hung up, he spoke loud and clearly.
"I didn't want to say anything while you were on the phone, but you're in America now, so you need to speak English."
"Excuse me!?"
"If you want to speak Mexican, go back to Mexico! In America we speak English."
"Sir, I was speaking Navajo. If you want to speak English, go back to England."
Saturday June 2nd 2018, 3:35 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Bosse, I have heard that story before, and even seen a meme about it. I hope that it actually happened somewhere, perhaps in Arizona or New Mexico, but it has the ring of an urban legend.
Saturday June 2nd 2018, 5:01 PM
Comment by: Nathan L.
My guess is that the "urban legend" Bosse's post recalls has something very concrete and factual behind it. Once upon a million years ago, in the winter of 1981 to be precise, I was a tutor at the Kicking Horse Job Corps Center in Ronan Montana. The "lingua franca" was your everyday basic northwest U.S. American English, but the boys enrolled at the center really did speak Navajo, Blackfoot, Crow, Sioux, and so on, if there was anyone else around who spoke Navajo, Blackfoot, Crow, Sioux and so on. The Navajo were the "majority" native group, and they all spoke to one one another in Navajo. However, there was also a large contingent of Sioux from South Dakota, and the Blackfoot spoke to each other in Blackfoot. I was your basic "intern", a volunteer "Anglo" who helped with math and English, in exchange for college credits. Sometimes I didn't understand whether I was being spoken to in Navajo or Sioux or Blackfeet or whatever as a joke or whether I was being asked a question in an accent of English that I didn't understand. The general atmosphere was extremely positive. You could write a whole novel about how these young men managed to figure out their "conflicts" despite being on very different cultural sides of very serious cultural conflicts (e.g. join up with the Europeans as the Crow did, or fight them, as the Sioux did). But novel written or not, the basic message is that violence is not a good solution. Hard work and charity are better values than emotional, knee jerk rejection and anger. I think kudos are in order for Orin for starting this difficult topic in an environment that usually lends itself to far more esoteric questions of English. Again, thanks, Orin, for this post. Nathan
Sunday June 3rd 2018, 2:28 PM
Comment by: Bosse B. (Malmö Sweden)
Oh, Orin, of course you've seen/heard the gist of 'my' joke:
"Go back to England"!
To me it was new and great fun!
And thanks! Once again you've provided us with a worthwhile text!
Sunday June 3rd 2018, 5:37 PM
Comment by: Kimberly C.
Thank you for an interesting and thoughtful article. While I support people's right to speak, read, work, and learn in whatever language works for them, I DO think it's reasonable to request retail employees to refrain from speaking in front of customers in a language they can't understand – purely for reasons of etiquette. It can be unsettling to have conversations happening in front of one that one isn't privy to; the more paranoid among us may worry the conversation is about them. With my own smattering of poor Spanish, I have indeed experienced retailers discussing myself and others when they thought their conversations were private.

Taken as a straight question of good manners, it's entirely reasonable to ask that employees be considerate of the people standing in front of them. It's a shame the issue touches on deeper cultural problems. Hopefully, this can be teased out from the racism and xenophobia this question inevitably gets packaged with.

Thanks again for the article.
Monday June 4th 2018, 3:57 PM
Comment by: JoAnn Z.
Monolinguism is a massive advantage to any nation. I see no upside to citizens who do not understand each other.
Tuesday June 5th 2018, 12:05 PM
Comment by: Juan Jose Hartlohner (Madrid Spain)
(noun) The Romance language spoken in most of Spain and the countries colonized by Spain.Also: the people of Spain. (adj.) Of or relating to or characteristic of Spain or the people of Spain • Spanish music.

(noun) An American whose first language is Spanish. (adj.) Related to a Spanish-speaking people or culture • the Hispanic population of California is growing rapidly.

“We’re American”
Is used somehow incorrectly referring to a native or inhabitant of the United States. The US is only a part of the America’s, or more precisely of North America. The population of Central and South America speak mainly Spanish or Portuguese.
The whole continent, extending from Alaska to Cape Horn was coined as “America” after navigator Amerigo Vespucci by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507.
Wednesday June 6th 2018, 10:28 AM
Comment by: B Fay W (Chestnut Hill, MA)
Kimberly C, in Orin’s example, the sales person was talking to a customer, when a second customer became unhinged. Certainly the first customer could reasonably expect to be spoken to in a language that he/she understood. I am aware of instances when people have spoken rudely or hatefully in a foreign language, thinking that the person about whom they are speaking does not understand their language when that person in fact does understand. I am also aware of times when people spoke disparagingly in English in front of another person whom they thought did not speak English, when in fact that person did understand. There are individuals who will flaunt language as a means of exerting their superiority, just as people use wealth, dress, education, the cars they drive, etc. to try to establish superiority. That is a misuse of all the items just listed, including language.
Wednesday June 6th 2018, 2:41 PM
Comment by: JoAnn Z.
Mr. Hargraves is status signaling to us readers.
Thursday June 7th 2018, 2:16 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
JoAnn Z: My status here is "author" or "columnist" and in that capacity I have the opportunity to express my views. The comments section gives readers an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to a conversation by expressing their views, as many have done. I am not clear on what contribution your most recent comment makes, but I invite you to expand on it. On the face of it, it seems to be a cheap-and-easy ad hominem poke.

Regarding your earlier comment regarding monolingualism: yes, surely, everyone benefits by mutual understanding but that has no necessary connection to monolingualism. Multilingual societies typically have compulsory education starting at the primary level in other languages and every study of linguistic ability supports the fact the speaking more than one language has tremendous benefits for the individual.
Thursday June 7th 2018, 4:51 PM
Comment by: Nathan L.
Dear All, clearly there are some heightened emotions here, but I do confess that I am enjoying the discussion.
I must say that the collocation "status signaling" brings me back to my college biology class on genetic behavior, and although I recognize that Adam and Eve chose the "animal route", it is an odd phrase to find in this context. We're trying, I hope, to work through some questions that have, as Mr. Hargraves pointed out when he referenced "shibboleth", beset mankind from time eternal.
On to the topic of "foreign language" in a "native language environment", I remember a lecture by the Russian writer Viktor Nekrasov in the 1980s in which he apologetically related the story of an event pertinent to this conversation. He and a friend entered a full Parisian cafe, and noticed a table soon to be vacated by an elderly, large and, as they understood it, local, woman. Viktor Nekrasov (in my memory of his telling of the story) said to his friend, in Russian of course, "As soon as that cow stands up, we can sit down," As they passed one another between the tables the woman said in native Russian, "The cow has stood, the suckling calves can sit."
Often a very short and simple, "Please don't take offence, I just need to explain this in 'Swahili' 'Russian' 'Chinese' 'Uzbek'or, as the case may be, 'Spanish'" is enough to relax a tense situation.
Of course saying unpleasant things to an interlocutor about a third party in the presence of the third party is a breech of basic etiquette. Leaving the third party to wonder if what they are hearing in a foreign language is about them or not is also inappropriate. Nevertheless, every situation is so full of particulars, that it is hard to generalize.
Perhaps we need to resort more often to the fundamental quality of charity, close cousin to mercy, the quality of which "is not strained", as I recall from my days in a New Zealand high school where pupils were not just allowed but required to read "The Merchant of Venice".
Americans, or "estadounidenses" (perhaps my favorite Spanish word, since that is who I am, as I always quickly clarify when speaking in my poor, but good sounding, Spanish), have traditionally been pretty good at "charity", but it is frustrating when it seems like the charity is being taken advantage of.
I think one of the fundamental problems being addressed in this discussion is more broadly cultural rather than purely linguistic.
As a nation the United States has accepted, almost without any questioning, a framework of cultural decision making based on rulings by the courts. Other countries have "used" other approaches to determine cultural priorities: intentional executive (Occitan was, for all intents and purposes, "deleted" from France), unintentional biological (mumps killed most of the speakers of certain Australian aboriginal languages), and various combinations.
In the U.S. the courts are asked to make all sorts of "cultural" decisions, and most in the U.S. think that is correct, normal, right and justifiable.
I, personally, do not think that "in the courts" is the right place to decide such maleable questions as what language policy a grocer (even a giant corporate 'grocer') is or is not allowed to promulgate in his stores. And still, though I suspect strongly that Mr. Hargraves and I are intuitively on opposite sides of this issue, I thank him for being willing to bring it into this forum.

PS I also suspect that I should start calling Mr. Hargraves "Orin". That stylistic change adds a nice, trusting and friendly patina to the conversation.
Sunday June 10th 2018, 1:22 PM
Comment by: Juan Jose Hartlohner (Madrid Spain)
When President Trump says “America first!”, what he really means is “The United States of America (a.k.a. USA) first”. He isn’t thinking of all the Americas, not even Canada, but merely of the US, and the “estadounidenses” (Nathan L. dixit).

Are most US-citizen aware that English is a modern language and most of its vocabulary goes back to Latin, Greek, Spanish, Italian, French, Anglo-Saxon, and Old-Norge?
Monday August 6th 2018, 2:51 AM
Comment by: Roy A. (Silt, CO)
Hello Orin,
I read your Side by Side article before I glanced to the side and saw your article No Spanish, Please. We're American. What a unique combination.Both were great.
I remembered as a teenager in the 40s,the dismay of my father and his friends, when fellow railroad workers who had recently arrived from Europe would speak with each other in their native language. My sense was that my father and friends assumed that these "foreigners" were speaking about them in a derogatory manner.There was an air of resentment and fear every time it was mentioned. Perhaps "nothing has changed, John Brown, nothing has changed."
Roy Altman Probably at one tine (Auldtmann?)

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