LINGUIST List 2.208

Thursday, 9 May 1991

Disc: Language and Culture (Part 1)

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  1. BILL ELDRIDGE, Re: What stand should linguists take?
  2. Mari Olsen, Re: Language, Law and Ideology
  3. "Michael Kac", English-only laws and individual rights

Message 1: Re: What stand should linguists take?

Date: Wed, 08 May 91 12:20:25 SET
Subject: Re: What stand should linguists take?
Comments on various culture/language debates.

 1) Despite the United States' professed preference for personal
freedom, the matter is similar to the liberty/equality tradeoff:
you have to meet the boundary somewhere. Debates on public smoking,
drug use and increased police intervention, drug tests, English-only
bills, abortion issues, "racist comment" backlash and so on reflect
a whole lot of restrictions on individual rights in either the name
of the public good or in the name of someone elses individual rights.
Either way, the process works about the same. I include the racist
comment backlash item because it reflects a reversal of the times
when every good ole boy politician had a few tasty racist/sexist
jokes, and now every one of them (except I think the governor of
Texas) has to practice self-censorship to the extreme, since even
small time unelected public officials or private employees are
subject to firing or reprimand for perceived racist statements.
Of course, the Japanese and the Arabic-Iranian sectors aren't
covered by this blanket. Similar over-reaction can be witnessed
with statements "soft on crime", "pro-drug", "pro-abortion"
"anti-choice" (the constituencies seem about equal there), "liberal"
(remember Dukakis backing away from the "L" word), "anti-flag"
and "anti-American".
 The result of all this sensitivity seems to
be that any policy debate gets couched in very grandiose, iconoclastic
terms, and more likely shades of opinion get shoved to the edge of
believability just so no sign of weakness is displayed in front of
the enemy (the teaching of Socratic methods in high school debate
classes tends to heighten the temper of "destroy your enemy at all
costs" tactic, and the idea of working out effective compromise is
overshadowed in the winner-take-all battle of two extremes.

 2) This said, I think that part of the English-only debate in the
U.S. rests on a situation where public funds are being decreased for
everybody, and carrying out dual language programs is largely seen
as a waste (this would be undoubtedly true in Alabama, where there is
a very very small non-English speaking population, and one would have
to wonder why they went to the trouble of even passing a law for
English only). Part of the debate probably rests on the formation of
the United States, which was a contract of independence from an English
rule by a principally English-speaking people (I'm not sure of the
percentages of other-language speakers at the time), and when new
territory was taken, the attitude was less of assimilating the new
population, but of expelling or exterminating the population. Thanks
to this measure, language issues have been largely dormant for most
of the U.S. history, since until recently the idea of providing
public services in non-English languages was pretty well unheard of.
Of course the naturalization requirement of English knowledge
effectively "encourages" language homogeneity, but widespread illegal
immigration, as well as the steady buildup of non-English barrios from
pre-annexation populations and immigrant culture bubbles have finally
made the English-only facade pretty thin in spots. It's interesting
that the black slaves (3/5 of a person each under the Constitution)
were originally forbidden to study, and I'm not sure why their original
languages did not survive at all in the U.S., since I don't think they
were banned in speech (?).

 3) I'm sympathetic towards the French population in Canada wanting
their culture to survive in the face of the the English population that
has swallowed up most everything north of the Rio Grande. I'm also
sympathetic to the fact that English is by far the most valuable language
in international affairs (i.e. the "lingua franca" has now become the
"lingua anglica" or some such pun), and it's probably a great disservice
in a more and more interacting world not to educate a country's population
in more than one language, especially those that are used more frequently.
Of course English speakers get spoiled, but there are still many places
where practically no one speaks English. An interesting related case
was that the Afrikaans-controlled government in South Africa wanted to
educate the black population in Afrikaans, which would be internationally
almost useless, as opposed to in English, for which there does exist a
large and somewhat neglected English-speaking population there.

 4) Does the French Academy's trying to restrict foreign words entering
the language offend people as much as Quebec's trying to weed out English?
If the Basques used the same tactics as Quebec, would we commend them?
In India it seems the English language and rail system had a largely
unifying effect on the country, while not eliminating the large array
of sub-cultures existant there. Latin America was unified at the
expense of large indigenous populations. If the people in Eastern
Europe had actually learned Russian, it might have eased their passage
into the world economy (also holds for the Mongolians). Instead, it
was forced in school, but not in real life, so no one learned it and
so now there is still a wide diversity of language, culture and dissent,
as Czecho--Slovakia and Yugoslavia can attest to. It seems like only
the Swiss are comfortable with a multi-lingual setting, and maybe
dissent will rear its head (or already has - I'm quite ignorant of
their situation) still.

 5) William S. Burroughs claims that language is a virus, and various
invading armies throughout history can vouch for it being a great weapon.
In public debate, if you can get the other party to use your terminology
and scenarios, you're halfway to victory. In a society, if you get
people using your language, your ideas and culture are quite a bit more
survivable. This is truly a war, just as encroaching as military and
economic movements. Of course lots of once sound economies go belly up
and no one thinks of it as unjust, and lots of languages have gone
virtually extinct, which we tend to think of as a shame. Whatever the
case, there is always pressure of change on language, and even though
there's more reduction in diversity,and media more and more effectively
ensures some large degree of consistency, there's still outward pressure
from young speakers coming up with slang as well as immigrants and
various minorities creating new dialects until finally an observer will
have to admit that these have become new languages. In a different
direction, terminology in different studies and endeavours has become
so extensive such that the typical language during the day of an
American scientist might be more understandable to a Chinese scientist
than to an American real estate agent. Of course the English grammar
would be understandable, but the vocabulary is growing rapidly, so
that the average person knows a smaller and smaller subset (percentage)
of his language. This phenomenon of exponential (or some such function)
information growth is reflected in the anecdote that up till about
1910 or 1920, every top mathematician knew all of the mathematical theorems,
but since that time this feat has become quite impossible. I suggest
that this trend might alter the way we look at language a little bit.

 6) Thanks for putting up with a long-winded message, and I hope
this provides some entertainment.

 Bill Eldridge
 Czechoslovak Academy of Science
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Message 2: Re: Language, Law and Ideology

Date: Tue, 7 May 91 16:48:02 EDT
From: Mari Olsen <>
Subject: Re: Language, Law and Ideology
Frank Anshen states a minority of English speakers may explain why the
Puerto Rican legislature made Spanish the
only official language. This bothers me vaguely on at least two

1: The United State has no such official language act, despite the
predominance of English speakers.

2: The `alternative' is worded as a cause, when in fact it appears to
be an effect of the last couple decades. From my unofficial
observation, people age 50+ were more likely to be more competent in
English than those younger, even with parents who spoke both English
and Spanish, because of the lack of school reinforcement. 

Puerto Ricans are justifiably proud of their Spanish heritage, but
monolingualism should be no source of pride.
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Message 3: English-only laws and individual rights

Date: Tue, 7 May 91 19:38:16 -0500
From: "Michael Kac" <>
Subject: English-only laws and individual rights
In reply to Geoff Nunberg's recent posting:

I don't doubt that the grassroots sentiment for English-only 
legislation is very broad, but the same could have been said about 
de jure racial segregation prior to the Brown decision.

Without knowing a lot about the specifics of the various English-
only laws that exist around the country, I nonetheless have the 
impression (correct me if I'm wrong) that people are not being 
fined and/or sent to jail for such things as having restaurants with 
names like La Caban~a identified by signs visible to passersby on 
the street, and that while English-only laws have led to 
harrassment of non-English speakers in the workplace using their 
native languages privately, such use is not literally prohibited by 
the laws in question. Further, if such people were to find 
themselves in court, I think it likely that someone somewhere 
would try to make a test case in which individual rights -- in 
particular, First Amendment rights -- would loom very large.

Michael Kac

PS Has there yet been a court challenge anywhere to English-only legislation?
 I haven't heard of any, but one would think it inevitable. Can Geoff or
 anyone else provide information?

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