A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
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.
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.
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.