LINGUIST List 6.895

Tue Jun 27 1995

Disc: English only

Editor for this issue: Anthony M. Aristar <>


  1. "Dr. Christian K. Nelson", Re: 6.832, Sum: Banned German, "English Only"
  2. benji wald , English-only/backlash

Message 1: Re: 6.832, Sum: Banned German, "English Only"

Date: Thu, 22 Jun 1995 17:10:48 Re: 6.832, Sum: Banned German, "English Only"
From: "Dr. Christian K. Nelson" <CNELSONVM.CC.PURDUE.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.832, Sum: Banned German, "English Only"

In a recent posting regarding "English Only" movements in the US, James
Kirchner quotes a passage of mine a bit out of context, and provides a
bit of commentary that I think is a bit off-target.

First, let me note that my comments were made in response to Kirchner's
private citation of surveys which suggest that a majority of Californian
Hispanics favor some form of the "English only" initiatives. James
suggested that such survey results were support for those initiatives.
My comments were made to suggest that such survey results aren't so
transparently meaningful, since oppressed groups have even organized
their own extermination at oppressor's bidding. In his last linguist
post James states these sentiments are "hyperbolic." Perhaps they would
be hyperbolic if I were comparing linguistic oppression with genocide,
but I am *not*. Deprivation of life is qualitatively different than
deprivation of language (though some might want to argue that a life
without one's language is not much of a life). Indeed, rather than
comparing apples and oranges, I was using the extreme (and historically
factual) example of people facilitating their own deaths in order to
point out that people are capable of the much less extreme action of
participating in the oppression of their own language.

Given that my comments were in response to a private post (albeit initiated
by a post on linguist), my comments were a bit less than painstakingly
accurate. Thus, I apologize to Professor Woolard for any inaccuracies in
my representation of her research as reported on this list--its been some
time since that graduate class in Madison.

Chris Nelson
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Message 2: English-only/backlash

Date: Tue, 27 Jun 1995 00:39:00 English-only/backlash
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: English-only/backlash

In a recent posting to the list on "English only" issues, James Kirchner
makes the following observation:
"Since linguists, to my experience, are generally terrific
atpreaching linguistic tolerance, but don't often deal with
pragmatic questions that don't affect them personally, I'll
annoy you all with a few questions brought up by non-linguists I
know. These people are neither radical conservatives, nor
bothered by the use of other"

which is then followed by some sample questions.

The questions are indeed familiar to me. Before examining some
of the ones he listed, a general observation I have to make is
that often the questions contain assumptions which are based on
misunderstandings or faulty information about what the case
really is. It is as if these assumptions come to the
questioners through rumors or personal discussions which
distort the actual facts -- obviously not through dispassionate,
scholarly or whatever-you-want-to-call-it study of the issues
darkly implied in the question. What's most interesting is that questioners
do not always accept "corrections" to the assumptions in these problems.
They want asnwers to THE questions, not criticisms of the premises in
the questions. If the linguist is honest s/he'd better admit if
s/he knows the facts underlying the question. It becomes an
issue of authority -- who "knows" what -- and it is not easy to
dislodge a worldview based on distorted beliefs,especially if
there are powerful social forces which encourage the

I'm not an expert in these issues, so I'll only make common
sense comments on some of the questions that Kirchner offers as

"1. How come in US regions where other foreign language groups
outnumber Hispanics, are safety warnings and federal signage are
still only posted in Spanish and English?"

Uhm, no doubt -- but where, in fact, is this the case? And then, is
Spanish the second most widely spoken language, outnumbered only by an
aggregate of twenty other smaller languages? Also, is the
accusatory implication in the question that "Hispanics" (not all
of whom by any means speak Spanish, let alone can't read
English) are getting special privileges, something that's prima
facie unfair according to some ethic that everybody "should" be
treated "equally"? It's interesting to note in this context the
origin of the Supreme Court "Lau" decision which brought on the
controversies about the educational system somehow taking into account students
with limited or no knowledge of English (other than by putting them in classes
for those classified as "retarded", the educational fruits of
an earlier successful interest group). This case started when
some Chinese parents in San Francisco were not satisfied with
the superintendent of schools' reply to their complaint when he said that to
"accomodate" to non-English-speaking children violates the
principle to treat them "equally" with English-speaking children.
Equal treatment = everybody gets the same instruction-- that
means in English (by a leap of logic that cannot be questioned).
After due deliberation, the US Supreme Court came to the view
that teaching everyone in English whether they understood it or
not was not what was meant by "equal" (or was it "equitable"?)
treatment by the US Civil Rights Code that was appealed to by
the representatives of the plaintiffs in this case. I'm too
lazy to look up the exact wording of the code on which the
decision was based, probably something like "equal access to
public education".

The so-called "backlash" implications of the question can be
discussed further separately in the context of the
African-American vs. Appalachian (hey, here we don't need the
hyphenated coda "-American"). For the moment, sometimes
its best for the linguist's own education and practice in
dealing with "pragmatics" to grant the assumptions in the
question and get a better idea of what the asker is getting at
(actually, to let the askers get a better idea of what they're
"Oh. Mr. and Mrs. XYZ told you that/you read it in the
papers/on TV. OK. So what do you think? Print the sign in
Kashubian for your neighbor's uncle? He shouldn't have to go
through what the "Hispanics" went through to get it in
Spanish? He should just stand on their shoulders? OK, somebody
had to do the work. That's how our system works. Somebody dies and
then the rest of us get a safer car.

" I'm sorry. I totally misunderstood you. You think it's
ridiculousto have a sign printed in 22 languages, some for only
one or two people. (I'm a linguist. I love it, and I also want
a phonetic transcription of the alphabets I can't read, but I'll
keep that to myself.) Yeah, now I understand. Every individual
is equally precious and those other things. You see the
impracticality of 22 languages. Yeah, I guess you're right. So
then it's only fair to remove the Spanish to maintain the ideal,
otherwise it's giving in to a pressure group which unfairly
takes advantage of its numbers (as if the English-speakers
don't? Why not get rid of the English signs too -- yeah, treat
EVERYBODY equal). Well, about numbers, do you understand
probabilities? No? OK, but what are your chances in running
into (or getting run into by?) a Kashubian speaker rather than a Spanish
speaker? Oh yeah, I forgot, your neighbor's uncle. That leaves me out on a
limb-augh, or is it limbo? (master of limbic argument!)

Next question?

"2. A manager, who had previously not minded foreign languages
being spoken in the office, is suddenly noticing a lot of
discord, backbiting and insubordination among the employees.
These are hard enough to quell when everyone is speaking English,
but it's even harder for this manager to monitor what's
happening, because it's all going on in a foreign language. Does
the manager A.) sign up for a beginning language course, B.)
quit the job and give it to someone fluent in the other language,
C .) recruit some ofthe employees as "spies", D.) mandate
English, E.) other_____ ? If the manager mandates English, will
it qualify as linguistic intolerance in this case?"

He (she?) *suddenly* noticed it! What opened the manager's eyes to a situation
that presumably had been going on for a long time? Oh, wrong
assumption? It just started bothering "everybody"? Why?
C. is obviously the right choice, and there will be no dearth
of applicants for the position, maybe just for job security --
no additional perks -- cheap (sorry, I meant "cost-efective")!
Only problem is, gee whiz, what if they're double agents?

"3. Why should a child who speaks Black American English be
accommodated in the classroom by court order, while an Appalachian kid gets
forced to learn (later changed to "gets the benefit of learning")
the standard dialect (i.e.,in addition to his or her own)?"

This is going to be upsetting to a lot of Black parents who thought their
kids were supposed to be getting taught "proper" English in school, but
if we translate it into its underlying semantics it's not so bad.

This has long been my personal favorite. The simplest (and oldest)
version is "hey! there are poor whites too!"

It's hopeless to appeal to the complex legal decisions and
classifications involved in the distinction between these two
groups -- not that the premise of the question should not be
challenged -- ask Walt Wolfram about strategies for teaching
standard English to Appalachians -- and what, by the way, means
"accommodating" in this context? Saying it's OK to speak Black
English but not Appalachian English?

Let's apply some mother wit to this question. Black Americans
are not covered by a right to be rich any more than Appalachians
are. The legal niceties have something to do with previous
legal niceties like legal rights to selectively breed,
buy and sell, retrieve stolen or misplaced African Americans
(yeah but that was a LONG time ago//backlash reaction: stop
whining!) and for over 100 years after that ended still
forbidden in almost half the states to marry whites (even
Appalachians! Yeah, I know, that also infringed on Appalachian
rights. So who complained?) yeah, but that was kinda a long
time ago, like until the early (19)70s, and we're almost in the
21st c. When is our history gonna stop being relevant to our
present and future? (thoughtfully asks the Foundation for Historical

By the way, who is this who's asking about the Appalachians? Can't they ask for
themselves? A funny thing I noticed about most Appalachians
I've met. They're proud people and not complainers. That's why
I suspect question 3. is not from an Appalachian but from
someone who is "concerned with" the confusing theme of "reverse
racism." (I bring this up in part to refer back to Kirchner's
observation that "linguists, to my experience, ... don't often
deal with pragmatic questions that don't affect them
personally". So we may suspect that this is also true of our
less "sophisticated", though not "radical conservative", brothers
and sisters who ask this and various of the other questions, like the one
about signs in English and Spanish but not Kashubian. I have
noticed that there are often "aesthetic" reasons for these
questions,as when the California English only initiative --
which won -- was touched off by residents of Monterrey Park who
"suddenly" noticed the main street was full of neon lights with
Chinese and Thai characters --made them feel like

Let's not forget the typical exchange that characterises the
reverse racism argument.

Yeah, but I didn't do it (= own slaves, refuse to hire blacks, etc etc)!
Yeah, but knowingly or not you benefited from it!
Yeah, but NOT ENOUGH!

There's one more question that, no kidding, comes up in some
of these arguments, and is almost unanswerable without
If the blacks are so poor how come they dress better than whites?

The general Appalachian belief seems to be a general American belief,
celebrated by Hollywood movies and rewarded at Oscar time,
that ANYONE has the opportunity to make a better life for themselves
(OK, so I said ANY...them... coref, back to content now), i.e.,
get rich, and that if you don't it's because of your own
personal incompetence or "lack of motivation."(Sometimes, say
the movies, even that's no obstacle to succe$$). For some
strange reason, quite a few African Americans don't accept
this basic notion - - maybe because it was already a truism
before Emancipation, and a tradition has been established in less affluent
segments of that community that it isn't meant to apply to
them. (And here I'll leave moot the question about whether
such a tradition is to the current advantage or disadvantage of
those who think like that -- but I'm sure the askers of
question 3. or its facsimiles have sharp opinions on that. Ask

Well, we're just trying to understand why these problems exist,
and why the people who ask these questions ask these questions.
Maybe that's more important at this point than trying to answer
them. As Kirchner certainly realised in collecting them,
they're not "just" questions. They're challenges, though not
necessarily (and not usually) original creations of the askers, or
even of the talk shows that disseminate them. BW

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