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Tucson Weekly Polyglot Perfection

In America, the official language sure ain't the queen's English.

By Jeff Smith

MAY 11, 1998:  IN FOURTEEN-HUNDRED-and-ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue...or so we've been led to believe. And when he ran out of ocean blue he bumped up against the beach somewhere in the West Indies.

Columbus, an Eye-talian, was running a smallish scouting expedition for the Spaniards, whose queen he'd talked into fronting him three runty ships for the purpose of finding a shortcut to India, where they had lots of silk and tea and spices the folks back on the Iberian Peninsula had a hankering for. When the ship hit the sand out in the Caribbean 506 years ago, Chris declared he'd found India and named the ruddy-complected surfers who greeted his boats "Indians."

He was wrong every way imaginable.

So to appropriately honor Columbus' blunder, we here in America (named for another Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, who also put in certain claims for discovering major parts of the new world) manufactured a creation-myth that holds sacred the notion--taught like a Grimm's fairy tale to every kindergartner--that Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. Never mind that he beached on a small island southeast of Cuba and never came near the north American mainland; never mind that he thought he was in India; never mind that Leif Eriksen had been here centuries earlier; never mind all manner of incontrovertible fact: Columbus discovered America.

How comes it, then, that in 1988 the voters of Arizona, the last of the contiguous 48 to attain statehood, passed a constitutional amendment making English the official language, and requiring that all state business be conducted in English and English only?

Why not Italian, since we've propagated the notion that an Italian discovered this place? Or how about Spanish, Castillian-style, of course, since they put up the cash for the voyage of discovery? But if you really think the first white man to plant his flag ought to get dibs on the language thing, why not Norwegian?

Then again, hows about Indian? Oh my goodness yes: pass the chutney. Or do you mean red Indian? Or do you speak with forked tongue?

The point is, that half the languages on the planet have legitimate claims to currency in America's history, its present and its future. The French owned most of this place for a time; the Dutch had a piece of the action, along with Portuguese, Africans, Mexicans, a whole array of different tribal peoples from Aleuts to Athabascans to Incas, Mayans, Aztecs...your boys named Sioux, your Algonquins, Apaches...and then there were Russians, Chinese, Canadians.

If there's one thing an American is, it's a mongrel. And if there's one thing the
de facto native tongue of this nation is, it's American, not the Queen's English, though its linguistic lineage is more or less descended from the written language of the British Isles.

American is a polyglot patois that borrows heavily--one might say steals unconscionably--from every other language on the planet, and consequently is the most rich and widely varied and expressive human tongue extant. We've got a vocabulary several times greater than the Romance languages, let alone the tribal tongues of the second- and third-worlds, and older languages are only now beginning to broaden their thesauri by borrowing back pidgen-American terms we've already ripped off from them.

American language is a bawdy, brawling steroid-monster of a growing child that draws its very vigor from its proximity to that storied melting pot of other cultures and languages--all of which come here and give.

So I ask again: What's up with the English-only thing? Most of us couldn't speak real English if we wanted to. I rented The Full Monty for Jones and his wife up in Flagstaff a couple weeks ago, and Mrs. Jones didn't enjoy it at all. She could only make out about one word in three. They were speaking working-class English. Try a similar ethnic flick, subtitled in, say, southside Chicago dialect, and your audience in Sheffield, England, would be similarly at sea.

But aside from the inherent inaccuracy in calling Arizona's racist little bit of initiative and referendum English-only vs. American-only, there's that whole deal with the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment thereto. Nowhere in the founding documents of this nation's government is there any reference to an official language. Nor coulda, shoulda, woulda been.

The first freedom the framers observed in the Bill of Rights was the freedom of speech, and therefor, of the press, and by logical extension, of religion, faith, of assembly. It takes no more sophisticated legal scholar than your typical 5-year-old to recognize that if government declares English to be the only lawful and official language of our society, and thus that government business cannot be transacted in Spanish, Latvian, Urdu or Latin, then the First Amendment is meaningless to Americans who happen to speak one of those instead of English.

I said as much a decade ago, and predicted a short life for the English-only amendment. As is so often the case, not only was I right, I was way ahead of my time.

It took 10 years for the Arizona Supreme Court to issue a quite simple, quite commonsensical opinion against the constitutionality of the English-only law. And at that, the opinion was announced a year after the retirement of the justice who wrote the majority opinion.

And now the case must certainly go to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has a recent history of cowardice in facing such outwardly simple and uncontroversial cases.

Hey! We know American English is for all practical purposes the language of U.S. government, commerce and daily life: We don't need some xenophobic, racist law on the books to make it official, and to force non-English speakers further outside the mainstream.

Down here in southern Arizona, where much of the local commerce still goes on in border Spanish, the ruling gringo class likes to look down its patrician nose at those ignorant, lazy Mexicans whose English isn't up to Harvard standards. Never mind that most of these white boys can't pronounce "tamales" or understand when the waitress smiles and calls them "cabrones."

It's kind of like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers--Fred being the white boy and Ginger the Mexican. Fed to the tits with hearing Astaire lionized for his terpsichorean skills, Ginger once remarked, archly, "Honey, I did every dance step Fred ever did...backwards, and in high heels."


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