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Defending the Language with Bullets

By Dennis Baron

“It’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”     –Barack Obama

The bumper sticker on the back of a construction worker’s pickup truck caught my eye: “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

This homage to education wasn’t what I expected from someone whose bitterness typically manifests itself in vehicle art celebrating guns and religion, but there was more: “If you can read this in English, thank a soldier.”

It was a “support our troops” bumper sticker that takes language and literacy out of the classroom and puts them squarely in the hands of the military.

It’s one thing to say that we owe our national security and the survival of the free world to military might. It’s something else again to be told that we need soldiers to protect the English language.

But according to this bumper sticker, any chink in our armor, any relaxation of our constant vigilance, any momentary lowering of the gun barrel, and we’ll all be speaking Russian, Iraqi, or even Mexican.

Supporters of official English argue that it’s the language of democracy — the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, not to mention the “Star-Spangled Banner,” “American Idol” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” (it doesn’t matter that Millionaire was a British show first, since Americans were British once themselves). English, goes the claim, is the “social glue” cementing the many cultures that underlie American culture. As Teddy Roosevelt said back in 1918, “This is a nation, not a polyglot boarding house.”

But apparently even the official language laws that states, cities, schools and businesses have put in place aren’t doing the job, so what we really need is to put a gun to people’s heads to make them use English.

Only that won’t work. The large number of translators killed in Iraq, or drummed out of the army for being gay, are two of the many indicators that our armies aren’t keeping the world safe for English.

The linguist Max Weinreich is credited with quipping that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. But guns can’t literally keep a language safe at home any more than they can effectively seal a border to keep other languages out.

In a bold act of regime change and a glaring breach of homeland security, French streamed across the English borders in the 11th century along with the Norman armies, but French soldiers were unable to convert most of the Brits they encountered to the parlez-vous, at least not in the long term.

And while the Royal Navy helped spread English around the globe as part and parcel of the British Empire, what really undergirds English today as an international language isn’t military might, but the appeal of global capitalism, science, computer technology, t-shirts, and good old rock ‘n’ roll.

Immigrants coming to the United States are learning some English; their children are learning a lot of English; their children’s children are speaking almost nothing but English. And the only soldiering involved in the process is when the immigrants or their children join the Army.

On the other hand, the military is more frequently associated with suppressing language than with protecting it. Remember the World War II slogan, “Loose lips sink ships”?  Wartime is all about not talking in any language.

Which is why it’s even more important to keep language a matter of civil rights, not a military issue. Yes, it’s important to support the troops. But the freedom to use language, any language, even an immigrant language, is even more vital to the nation in times of war or other crises, when every language including English seems like the language of the enemy, and when it’s easier to feel antipathy towards immigrants and others who seem outside the mainstream, than it is in those rare moments when things are going just fine and it seems o.k. to let people say whatever they want in the language of their choice.

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language, where this article originally appeared.

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  2. Trey Jones

    I think you have misunderstood the meaning of “If you can read this in English, thank a soldier.” Language is the most obvious manifestation of culture, ethnicity, and nationality. I believe the sentiment expressed, whether one agrees with it or not, is that if not for soldiers, the US would have been conquered by the Germans or the Russians and the citizens would have been forced to learn and speak German or Russian. This overlooks the role of soldiers in the Revolutionary war, but “If you don’t regularly eat tea and crumpets, thank a soldier” isn’t as catchy.

    I also have to disagree with the statement that the “[Norman] soldiers were unable to convert most of the Brits they encountered to the parlez-vous”. I’ve seen reasonable estimates of 30-40% of English vocabulary as being derived from French. Two personal experiences demonstrate the linguistic power of the Norman conquest. When I studied French in college, I came upon a reasonable heuristic when I was in desperate need of a word: choose a polysyllabic English word (non-compound and with phonotactics compatible with French, especially those ending in “-ility” or “-able”) and say it quickly with a French accent. It works more often than not. The meaning may be off a little, or a lot, but my instructors forgave confusing faux amis during conversation. On the other hand, when I took a course in Old English in grad school, I was shocked at how much more quickly other students seemed to be picking up the grammatical details of the language. I’m usually pretty good at picking up languages, and I was getting blown out of the water. I asked a friend and the class, and he told me that a few years of German made learning Old English a lot easier.

    I know that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, but the stories do illustrate the point. The Normans roughed up our mother tongue pretty seriously, even if they didn’t completely replace it.

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