By David del Valle
When francophone Canadians of Quebec went to the polls a number of years ago to vote whether to stay or secede from Canada, there was quite a seismic stir felt in the Unites States. Canada’s neighbor to the south had been going a considerable shift to the right in its body politic. Part of this conservative shift had expressed deep concerns over its immigrant population, and the need for the institutionalization on an English-only policy. Indeed the Canadian experience has been put forward as a model of what can happen, if this nation does not pursue the English-only policy. Those who have used this example have failed to realize that the history of the francophone experience in Canada is completely different from that of monolingual people in the United States (or for that matter bilingual people).
The French experience in the New World established itself hundreds of years ago (one must remember that the Spanish presence did the same in the Southeastern and Southwestern part of the United States). There has been a historical presence and hence a historical precedent for the French presence in Canada. As a result of the Mexican-American war, and the subsequent treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the experience has not been the same for Hispanics, or for that matter any other monolingual or bilingual group.
At the time of the francophone uproar Americans were led politically by the likes of Newt Gingrich, Robert Dole and others. Today the politicians possess different names, but the agenda is the same. It is an agenda that is predicated on xenophobia and is ultimately a call for self-triumphalism, and hence the push for English-only. Something here is reminiscent of old historic slogans like, “Remember the Maine,” or “Don’t forget the Alamo,” slogans birthed in doctrine of Manifest Destiny.
One may venture to ask, “What is the problem?” After all, all we are talking about is language, and since this nation traces its history to its Anglo-Saxon moorings it is logical, hence axiomatic that English-only should rule the land. Recent studies by the National Geographic Society have proved, much to many a persons dismay that we live in a country that is geographically illiterate. I would venture to add that we are somewhat culturally and linguistically illiterate as well.
Out of necessity I find myself having to delves into the philosophy of Miguel de Unamuno (Yes, we Hispanics have had our measure of philosophers and writers) who dealt with a similar situation in early twentieth century Spain. By doing this I hope to secure an answer to English-only pundits as to what constitutes a language and a validity for its free expression. Unamuno states with precision that, “Our language itself, like every cultural language, contains within itself an implicit philosophy.1” Herein lies the dilemma, language contains an implicit philosophy, a way of looking at the world, interpreting events, and a way of viewing oneself and one’s relationship to the world. Unamuno further elucidates, Language is that which gives us reality, and not just a mere vehicle of reality, but as its true flesh, of which all the rest, dumb or inarticulate representation, is merely the skeleton. 2
Evidently we are looking for and seeking to construct through language a perspicuity of reality. Reality through the lens of our language. Language as we have noted is culturally derived and “…culture is composed of ideas and only ideas, and man is only cultures instrument.” 3 We find here that Unamuno is speaks sarcastically, and is rebelling against this idea of culture as convention. Unamuno rails against the culture of science and calculation. “Man,” he says, “apparently, is not even an idea. And at the end of all will fall exhausted at the foot of a pile of libraries.”4 (At the foot of a pile of personal computers and Pentium chips, I would venture to add. DDV).
English as a language has become a language of the economy of the material; it is a language of science and calculation and in some sense has ceased to be a language of poetry. If it is indeed poetry, then it is the poetry of money, the poetry of Wallace Stevens. William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, E.E. Cummings and Ezra Pound demonstrate for us a language that is frustrated with itself, drunk with the wine of narcissism, of a culture of science and calculation, obsessed with the absurdity of life.
“Thought,” like language Unamuno declares, “is an inheritance.” 5 What type of inheritance do the English-only pundits desire for the rest of America? Have not politicians meddled enough in the private lives of Americans? Even the political process is steeped in the language of innuendo and the six-second sound bite. Whose English are we speaking of anyway? Is it the English that is wedded to science, Wall Street and technology? Is it the English of invention, of mathematical formulae, of nuclear physics or Cape Canaveral?
Kant thought in German, and into German he translated Hume and Rousseau, who thought in English and French respectively. And did not Spinoza think in Judeo-Portuguese, obstructed by and contending with Dutch? 6
The English-only pundits are now saying that we must perceive the world as they do, as if we were all characters in their version of Brave New World. “How is it,” states Unamuno, “that among the words that English has borrowed from our language, such as siesta, camarilla, guerilla, there is to be found the word desperado?” 7 A word birthed from despair (desperado), to be without hope. This despair comes full force from a culture where reason above faith must dominate the landscape, the culture, hence the language at all cost. Even evangelical Christianity has wedded itself to the scientific method, much to its own detriment. The language of faith has become dribble surrendered to the process of scientific reason.
English only! We must save the language from itself. Noun kill can only lead to cultural ethnocide. If English is to be the only language, what then must be done? Let us change the names of a good portion of our states, cities and streets and remove all vestiges of other languages from English. Purify the language and the language and its people die comically. “That some people,” declares Unamuno, “put thought above feeling, I should say reason above faith, die comically, while those die tragically who put faith above reason.” 8 The call here is to maintain a healthy tension.
It is the opinion of this author that the recent shift in the political scene is nothing more than the rebirth of Plessy vs Ferguson. Jim Crow is on the prowl with a whole new wardrobe, but the same old agenda. When language ceases to be in dialogue with itself and with other languages, it creates deep silos where communication ceases and that is the death of us all. We have yet to learn the lesson of Babel and hopefully history will not need to repeat itself.
1. Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life, Translated by J.E. Crawford Flitch (London: Dover Publications, 1954), p. 310
2. Ibid, p. 311
3. Ibid, p. 308
4. Ibid, p. 308
5. Ibid, p. 310
6. Ibid, p. 310
7. Ibid, p. 324
8. Ibid, p. 316