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The power of American English to unite a fractured nation

A row of Oxford English dictionaries in a school classroom on February 11, 2022 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)
A row of Oxford English dictionaries in a school classroom on February 11, 2022 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

American English has many forms.

It’s evolved over 400 years to match this country’s dynamic history.

Humanities professor Ilan Stavans says that because it’s so adaptable, American English can unify our fractured nation.

Today, On Point: What if English is the last strand that holds together this fractured nation?

Guests

Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring professor of humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. Essayist, cultural critic and translator. Author of many books, including The People’s Tongue: Americans and the English Language. (@IlanStavans)

Interview Highlights

How old were you when you first were immersed in the languages of this nation?

Ilan Stavans: “I was 25. I came from Mexico. I had grown up in a multilingual environment, in a Jewish Yiddish speaking enclave, and arriving to the United States was a shock. It was equally shocking to arrive geographically as it was to arrive linguistically, because the moment I entered a subway car in New York City, I realized that there wasn’t one English language but a multiplicity of them, or that the English language was devouring all sorts of sounds that were coming from different regions in the world, and that some of those sounds could be mine.

“I could be devoured by the English language, or I could adapt myself, figure out what this language is and try to push it in, rearrange it from within. I think that is the journey that many immigrants feel. We come to the language. The language welcomes us. But we also realize at some point that if we abandon our own immigrant language and we just surrender, fully immerse ourselves in English, we will give up an essential part of who we are. And so it’s a negotiation, a give and take. Either way, I feel enormously grateful to this beautiful, magnificent polyphonic language for its openness, its embrace, its capacity to recognize that the homogeneity is boring and that there are all sorts of ways of embracing it.”

On English in the late 17th century

Ilan Stavans: “It was a settler’s language. And today we distinguish between the word settler and the word immigrant, and the word exile and the word refugee. They all have different connotations, but they are all new arrivals, as is, say, a tourist to this country and a slave in the fact that these settlers are arriving strong, mighty in their vision of this new Canaan.

“And with a conviction that this is going to be a place of freedom, enables them to feel that the language will be theirs and as such, they ignore the many other languages that are in this territory, and it is essential that we recognize that in the conquering efforts of the American English language, there is also a cemetery, a series of silences of other languages that have succumbed in the process.”

In the early 20th century, there were efforts to make English a national or state language. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Ilan Stavans: “The tension has been strong because of that constant influx of outsiders, of immigrants. It’s a significant fact that upon arriving to Ellis Island, the first thing supposedly immigrants or future immigrants see is that sonnet engraved in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty by Emma Lazarus. That includes the line, Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses. These are the rejects. This is the refuge of the other nations that have been coming here. And yet it is in English that that sonnet receives those newcomers, a language many of them not yet know.

“But the hope is that eventually they will embrace it. That tension between how fast an immigrant will learn the language, how dangerous it might be that they don’t learn the language fast enough, generates all sorts of fear, polemics, controversies within the country. And in the book, there is an ongoing debate between those that believe that bilingual education is a catastrophe, that we need to convince immigrants to surrender their immigrant language and embrace fully and without any hesitation the English language, because it’s the only way for them to become fully American in a more subtle, embracing, benign and contemporary view that you don’t have to give up your language.

“You can take that immigrant language in the process of becoming a full English language speaker. And there are the two sites in each state, in each county, in each town that will advocate for one side or the other. And this tension, this debate goes on. And one could say, well, when is it going to stop? And the fact is that it’s the very tension that keeps us democratic, the debate of how we do it, and the fact that the debate is in English, in and of itself.”

Book Excerpt

An excerpt from The People’s Tongue: Americans and the English Language by Ilan Stavans. All rights reserved. Not to be republished without permission of the publisher.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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