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Monday, May 22, 2006



Many of our most liberal Democrats in the Senate have voted against an act to make English the official language of the United States. My own state, Iowa, has had this same debate in every legislative session for several years. While I certainly agree that immigrants who wish to become citizens of the United States must learn English, the debate over language looks kind of silly to me. My sixty years of speaking only a single language (3 years of Latin in High School do not count unless you have a perverse need to read Caesars Commentaries on the Gallic Wars in the original), and the many places I have lived in over the years, may have given me a little different perspective.

I am a bit bemused by those native born Americans who say that immigrants should speak English before they are allowed to enter the United States. If that were true in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, many of us would have been born in Europe. Certainly, my German Grandparents would have been excluded, and my Irish Great Grandfather would have been turned away also. He spoke a form of English, but with such a heavy brogue, only another Irisher could understand him. However, they all managed to learn English, meet the health and residency requirements, and pass the history and civics tests required for them to become citizens.

While growing up in Chicago, and living there during my early adulthood, I lived in and visited many ethnic neighborhoods where European languages were more commonly heard on the street than English. Polish in Logan Square, and German in Andersonville. Friends in Little Italy chatting in their native tongue, with Yiddish spoken a few blocks away in Rogers Park. While many of the older folk never mastered English ( thereby giving up the opportunity to become citizens), their children grew up speaking the language of their parents native land at home, but used English at school, work, while shopping, and most other places. In turn, their children could barely understand the Grandparents, and spoke the original language not at all. In other words, English became the common language on its own merit.

While thinking about the current discourse about immigration, may I take just a moment to tell all of our politicians to stop saying we are a nation of immigrants. This is factually incorrect, misleading, and obfuscates the discussion. According to the Census Bureau, over eighty percent of American citizens were born in the United States. We are a nation of the descendants of immigrants. That includes me with my Irish and German family roots; and my wife, with her Cherokee roots.

I certainly think most rational people would agree that English is one of the most difficult languages to learn. It has the largest vocabulary, by far, of any spoken tongue on earth. We have about 60,000 words that are in daily use, and over 400,000 conversational words in total. Add to that another 250,000 technical and scientific words, for a total of over 650,000. An American six year old has a working vocabulary of 5,000 to 6,000 words, more than some languages have in their entirety. However, it is our usage of English that makes it truly difficult. To be honest, some aspects of English lack rationality. Rules are made to be broken, yet exceptions prove the rule.

The reason I mention the Liberals in the title of this piece is that the opposition to making English our official language comes primarily from Liberals. That is certainly the case in Washington, as well as Iowa. I think I may have identified the underlying reason for this, and I halfway agree with Harry Reid. He said the bill making English the designated language of the United States was racist. I agree that racism may be part of the issue, but the racism that is showing its ugly head is in the Liberal opposition to the act. I believe the Liberals do not think the illegal immigrants now in America, and the millions more who would gain access to America through the Senate sponsored Immigration bill, are not intelligent enough to learn English. In other words, Senator Reid is essentially saying that Spanish speaking immigrants are not as capable as an American born six year old. I, for one, do not agree with the Senator and his racist enablers in the Congress.

This is a claim I do not make lightly. However, previous generations of immigrants had to survive in a country that used only English in all of its governmental activities. Election ballots, drivers’ license tests, public school classes, state and local publications and every other aspect of official life were in English. There were no provisions for Polish, Italian, Greek or German versions of governmental materials. Yet today, many of these activities are conducted in English and Spanish, as well as other languages on a more limited basis. It would appear that our Liberal friends are either more solicitous of the needs of Spanish speaking people than those who spoke European languages, or they fear that these newcomers to the United States lack the capacity to learn English. Since Liberals lay claim to the idea that we are all equal, this use of Spanish cannot be because of preferential treatment. Therefore, our Liberal compatriots must think Spanish speakers are unable to learn English, and require special assistance to integrate into American society. I find this attitude both demeaning and disrespectful.

As I pointed out earlier in this piece, I fully understand that English is not an easy language to learn, but I think anyone who desires citizenship should have both the desire and ability to communicate in the language of our culture. By the way, I am speaking of American English. The English themselves will be the first to tell you that we don't speak English, we speak American. And so it starts.

Reasons why the English language is so hard to learn. With thanks to those friends who provided many of these examples.

1) The bandage was wound around the wound.
2) The farm was used to produce produce.
3) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
4) We must polish the Polish furniture.
) He could lead if he would get the lead out.
6) The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
7) Since there is no time like the present, he thought it wastime to present the present.
8) A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
9) When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
10) I did not object to the object.
11) The insurance was ruled invalid for the invalid.
12) There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
13) They were too close to the two doors to close them.
14) The buck does funny things when the does are present.
15) A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
16) To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
17) The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
18) After a number of injections my jaw got number.
19) Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
20) I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
21) How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

Let's face it - English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger. Neither is there an apple or a pine in a pineapple. English muffins weren't invented in England, nor French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies; while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat. While on the subject of food, I do not want to get into a discussion of hotdogs. That would be an essay of its own.

We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig. And why is it that writers write, but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham?
If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth, beeth?
One goose, two geese. So one moose, two meese.
One mouse, two mice. So one blouse, two blice, right ?
One index, two indices? Where did that one come from?

Doesn't it seem odd that you can make amends but not one amend? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it? Is the leftover an odd or an end? If the teacher taught, why didn't the preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

Mobile means moveable, and immobile means non-moveable. Flammable means it will catch fire, but so does inflammable. You have to go to something that is non-inflammable before you are safe from fire. And why is abbreviated such a long word?

Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what other language do people recite at plays and play at recitals? We drive on Parkways, and park on driveways. Ship cargo by truck and truck cargo by ship? And neither pertains to a car. And is this the same truck we don't have to put up with? We have noses that run and feet that smell. How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out, and in which an alarm goes off by going on. English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race, which, of course, is not a race at all.That is why we can only see the stars when they are out, but when the lights are out, we can't see anything. And I think the lights may be dim, if not completely out, in Washington.


T. J. (Tom) Glennon

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