This is America. We Speak Whatever Language We Dadgum Well Please Here

During the Alabama Republican primaries, gubernatorial candidate Tim James announced in one of his ads:  “This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it.”

If that were just the sentiment of one knuckle-dragging idjit who washed out of a Republican primary, it wouldn’t be worth commenting on.  But James ran the ad precisely because the view he expressed was popular among such a wide range of troglodytes in the general public.

I can’t imagine anything that’s less anybody’s business than what language someone else speaks,  or whether or not they “assimilate.”  Imagine someone saying “This is Alabama.  We go to the Baptist church here.”  Or wear a certain kind of clothing, or eat a certain kind of food, or whatever.

I don’t feel obligated to learn Spanish to accommodate immigrants who haven’t learned English, and would resent being expected to do so.  But if they can find enough Spanish speakers here to get by, and enough bilingual businesses to employ them and trade with, it’s entirely their business.  And it’s certainly none of my business what language people use to talk to each other.

The idea that there should be some single “official” language in each country is one of the more pernicious things associated with the rise of the modern nation-state. It has led to ethnic cleansings, genocides, and enormous population transfers (like, for example, the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey after WWI).  It has led, internally, to the sort of linguistic homogenization by which the “standard” versions of national languages spoken in the capitals supplant regional dialects.  There’s still something recognizable as a Downeast or Appalachian accent in the U.S., but it’s a lot more watered down than it used to be after fifty years of universal exposure to American Network Standard.

I also wonder just when “we” were supposed to have started speaking only English here.  The United States has always had populations of “unassimilated” non-English speakers, as long as it’s been a country:  Dutch in the Hudson River valley, Germans in Pennsylvania, French in the St. John’s River valley of Maine, Acadians in Lousiana, etc.  So people speaking Spanish (especially in parts of the U.S. that were once part of Mexico) is as American as apple pie.

Oddly enough, the people most agitated about English as the “official language” are many of the same folks who claim to be terrified that the government is taking over everything.  It’s hard to think of anything more personal the government could take over than what language a person chooses to speak.

In a free country, people speak whatever language they choose, to anyone who is willing to talk to us, and we all mind our own dadblamed business. That realization alone wouldn’t abolish all government, but it would be a good start towards developing the clear thinking that liberatory futures require.

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