Tuesday, 2 May 2006

Nuestro Himno

I'm teaching a new Extension course called "English: The World's Language". Our first class was last night, and I quite enjoyed it.

We discussed the current national anthem flap over in the USA. Seems someone's translated it into Spanish, and it has the usual folk feeling belligerent.
Several Republican senators are steamed at the notion of a new Spanish version of "The Star Spangled Banner."

Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander, Majority Leader Bill Frist, both from Tennessee, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, and Pat Roberts of Kansas submitted a nonbinding resolution on the Senate floor last week that said the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance "should be recited or sung in English."

How dare they sing our national anthem in the language of a foreign country! They should only sing it in English... which is the language of a foreign country.
The reason, they say, is that what binds Americans together is not race, ancestry or origin, but a common language -- English.

It's true that language is a unifying force. If blood is thicker than water, then language is thicker than blood. The UK and Australia are close partners with the US not just because of mutual business interests, but also because of the common language. 'Speakng someone's language' is a frequent metaphor for mutual understanding. But just as language can be a unifying force, so can tolerance and respect, which you never see from the Party of Division.
And they argue that immigrants wanting to become citizens must renounce allegiance to their former country and swear allegiance to the laws and Constitution of the United States, and they must make that oath in English.
Lamar Alexander's actual words:
“I worry, Mr. President, that translating our national anthem will actually have the effect of dividing us. It adds to the celebration of multiculturalism in our society which has eroded our understanding of our common American culture."

Aah, there it is. The old bogeyman Multiculturalism. They dress up their detestable sentiments in the language of unity and togetherness, but the real message is always: We are one nation: ours, not yours. And leave your language at the razor-wire fence.

This reaction doesn't surprise me. What does surprise me is that people aren't better at recognising their own fear and managing it. The fear I'm talking about is the fear of one's language vanishing. Think about it for a minute -- it would be terrible. Not having anyone who understands Shakespeare? Not being able to communicate with anyone (especially because you haven't actually taken the effort to learn another language)? It would be like having your way of thinking erased. But is that likely to happen to English? Not really -- English is the number two language in the world, in terms of native speakers and learners. It's other languages that are being threatened by English. But try telling that to the poor English-speaking xenophobe. He's too busy fighting an eternal trumped-up war against imaginary and ever-changing foes.

Wars are about control. In a physical war, you try to control the resources; land, oil, water. In a culture war, you try to control the standard -- whose standard will prevail? So consider this conflict a pre-emptive strike. We have to protect English from Spanish, just like we had to protect America from Iraq. They might do something to threaten us, you see.


  1. Hi, I read a while back that for a language to survive it must have a critical mass of about 80million speakers.
    I don't remember where this info came from but of course I have trotted it out ever since.
    Obviously English, Chinese, French, Russian, Spanish,Brazillian, Arabic, Swahili and Indonesian are covered by their native numbers but are some languages just weeker in terms of being able to withstand the onslaught of the super popular languages-notabley English?
    The languages spoken in the Indian sub continent because of native speakers, should be safer than say german sitting on about 80million, but are they exporting?-growing their numbers and users ?
    Does the criterior of a growing language mean more than mere numbers but is qualified by the broadness of the spread and the importance the world gives to its use. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, is Russian still being taught in other countries?
    Because nearly all dutch people seem to be fluent in at least one other language does that mean that they are contributing to the demise of dutch?
    Any one have any more accurate data or thoughts?

  2. Hard to say -- some languages manage to survive even though they're way below critical mass. I'm thinking of the Pirahã (again). About 350 people, but the language isn't dying out even though they do have contact with other language groups. It's a weird case, though.

    I think of languages as like planets with their own gravitational fields -- English is, like, Saturn -- and every once in a while something will get sucked in if it gets too close.

  3. isn't it sad how scared Americans are of other tongues? Can you imagine what it would be like if all this energy and money were being spent on early education in other languages and cultures. Instead its all going to building fences.


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