Sunday, September 14, 2014
“If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” H.L. Mencken
This is one of my favorite quotes. It’s totally silly, and yet somewhere in the contiguous 48, there’s a Bible-thumper who will read those words and rejoice because yes, there are people who believe the writings in the Bible were originally in English--and American English, at that--and that God spoke like an angry Quaker with thees and thous and thines.
English, some believe, is the second most complex language after Cantonese. I can’t vouch for that, since my linguistic abilities—other than this adopted language—are limited to French, a smattering of Spanish, and about a hundred words of Japanese I learned in martial arts. Nevertheless, I am a passionate believer in learning the tongue of your adopted home. One of my most notable pet peeves is this country’s willingness to bend over backwards, language-wise.
My sainted mother learned English when we came to the States. She spoke it awkwardly at best. The language’s vagaries infuriated her, the cheap and ship and chip and cheep and sheep rolled off her tongue sounding exactly alike. But she never stopped trying to differentiate them one from another.
I do not understand why; in the past 20-or-so years, the US has gone out of its way to weaken its language base, to become a nation of idiots incapable of using an ATM unless the instructions are in Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese or Portuguese. I do not understand why speaking English is not a basic requirement of citizenship, why immigrants seeking to become Americans are not required to have basic English reading and writing skills. I am tired of dealing with store clerks and fast food employees who are incapable of filling the simplest order or providing the most basic of information. I don’t understand why we’re willing to sacrifice a brilliant, vibrant language and get nothing in return.
Europeans have long known that a nation’s language is one of its primary sources of strength, pride and unity. This is why breakaway nationalist movements, be they Basque, Tamil, Breton, Flemish, or any one of a hundred others, always rally around their own tongues. Nothing binds like a shared dialect, a way to communicate with others of your clan while excluding others.
The French, who truly love their mother tongue and rightly consider it the most beautiful in the world, have an Académie that everyone not French finds risible. The Académie comprises France’s most notable writers, poets, playwrights and journalists. It works to protect the French language from accepting too many foreign terms at work and in the arts and entertainment. This is not an easy job, and the Académie has not always been successful. The onslaught of computerese alone constantly threatens the integrity of the language. But the academicians have managed, in spite of it all, to maintain French as the official language of France (fancy that!). It may be fighting a losing battle in the information age, but it will see to it that French does not become Franglais.
Here, sadly, not so much. Our willingness to put English in second place after whatever languages is brought in by new arrivals will not benefit us, in spite of the false assertion that a flood of foreign terms make a language richer. Some words, yes. Think gestalt, savoir-faire or my personal favorite, schadenfreude. Most other words, no.
OK, all from me. Hasta la bye bye.