Let’s pretend it’s dinner time, and you’ve just developed a sudden craving for Mexican food.
Yesterday, it was Chinese. Tomorrow it may be Italian. But today, it’s Mexican.
And, while we’re pretending, let’s pretend that a four-star Mexican restaurant just opened around the corner.
You walk in, and the red-haired hostess politely greets you in impeccable British Standard English, seats you, and hands you a menu. At the top is a grilled American cheese sandwich. You can order it plain or with tomato (75 cents extra). Below are other specialties of the restaurant -- pot roast, chicken pot pie, and fried liver with onions.
Thinking you got the wrong menu, or at least went to the wrong restaurant, you ask the blond-haired waiter to give you the Mexican menu.
“This is it,” he says.
“I was hoping for an appetizer of nachos with salsa and guacamole, and a main course of fajitas,” you say.
He tells you the restaurant -- Matthew’s -- doesn’t have fajitas. Nor does it have tacos, enchiladas, or quesadillas. You can, however, order a mug of Two X beer, which was once named Dos Equis.
“We used to have chili con carne, which we renamed chili with meat,” says the waiter, “but the Language Police ordered us to take it off the menu because we couldn’t translate “chili” into an American term.
Absurd? Of course it is. But, the truth is even more absurd. During World War I, with Americans despising anything German, and the establishment newspapers fueling flames of patriotic intolerance, “sauerkraut” became “victory cabbage,” hamburgers became “liberty sandwiches” and hamburger steak became forever etched into Americans’ vocabularies as “Salisbury steak.” In March 2003, when France didn’t agree with the United States about why the world should invade Iraq, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), chair of the Committee on House Administration, ordered all restaurants in the buildings of the House of Representatives to rename french toast “freedom toast” and french fries “freedom fries.” The White House also thought that was a reasonable thing to do while planning a “shock-awe-and-quagmire” invasion. Hundreds of restaurant owners throughout the country followed the Congressional will. In response to reporters salivating to report upon an international food fight, Nathalie Loisau, a spokeswoman for the French embassy in Washington, D.C., said, “We are at a very serious moment dealing with very serious issues and we are not focusing on the name you give to potatoes,” (Apparently, Americans didn’t have any problems with french horns or french poodles.)
As absurd as the linguistic larceny that renamed food are the babblings of most of the nation’s radio talk-show hosts and their ranting gaggle of jingoistic followers who demand the United States be solely an English-speaking country. Hundreds of towns and half of the states, spending millions of taxpayer funds, have created legislation that makes English the official language. It’s very simple, they wail, foreigners “gotta learn good English like us Americans.” Of course, these good patriotic Americans -- wearing T-shirts made in Taiwan, sneakers made in Thailand, and flying Chinese-made American flags from their imported Toyotas, Hondas, and VWs -- don’t seem to be concerned that Grandma Anusia speaks literate Polish but only halting English, or that Uncle Antonio’s primary language is Italian. They’re also tolerant of the Chinese restaurant workers who speak minimal English (and may be illegal immigrants working in sweat shop conditions) because -- well -- everyone loves those inexpensive buffets!
President Bush’s “No Child left Behind Act,” enacted a year after his first inaugural, wiped out Title VII, the Bilingual Education Act that was begun in 1968 under Lyndon Johnson, and renewed under the administrations of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton -- four Republicans, three Democrats. That Act encouraged “developing the English language skills” of children but also “to the extent possible, the native language skills.” The new law disregards any instruction in any language other than English.
If we accept what is sprouted by the radio talk shows, we’ll have to “Americanize” vodka and caviar; blintzes, knishes, and latkes; gnocchi, lasagna, fettuccini, and eggplant parmigiano. Most food will have to be renamed, as will the names of most animals, and musical instruments. Among 75,000 words of international origin, we’ll have to rename candy, coleslaw, dollar, and iceberg (from the Dutch), tomato, hammock, and pow-wow (from American Indians), adobe, coffee, gauze, magazines, soda, and sofa (from Arabic), pistols, polkas, and robots (from the Czech), and banjo, cola, jazz, and zebra (from West African languages). We may even have to rename Santa Claus, which originated as the Dutch Sintaklaas. We will no longer sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” at Christmas since “hallelujah” comes from the Hebrew, and “chorus” from the Greek.
My parents and grandparents spoke German, Yiddish, and Russian. They were most effective in keeping certain information from me by speaking in a mix of languages. But, every now and then, one of them would try to tell me a story in one of their languages, only to stop, start over, and then give up, telling me, “There's just no way to translate this.”
Reflecting the reality that Hispanics are now the fastest growing minority in America, there are dozens of Spanish language radio and TV stations, as well as six major networks. Univision, available on most cable systems, is the fifth largest TV network in the United States; its evening newscast, co-anchored by Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, often has higher ratings than any English-language network evening newscast. Telemundo, owned by NBC/Universal, is the second largest Spanish language network.
Almost since the beginning of the nation, there have been ethnic and cultural organizations and foreign language newspapers to inform and unite the nation of immigrants. The first foreign language newspaper was the Philadelphische Zeitung, a German language newspaper published in Germantown, now a part of Philadelphia; its publisher was Benjamin Franklin who didn’t speak German, but knew the settlers needed information.
During the 1790s, with Germans the largest ethnic population in the state, the Pennsylvania legislature narrowly defeated a bill that would have made German the state’s official language. More than two centuries later, Americans are debating laws to make English the official language. Perhaps more American communities could follow Pennsylvania’s original belief that there were better things to do than to decide on an official language.
Every language, every culture, has helped contribute to what makes the United States unique. As the nation begins to accept immigrants, they do learn the American language, often becoming more fluent in it than do native-born speakers. By “rephrasing” our linguistic and cultural base to demand an ethnocentric America, we destroy a nation founded upon liberty and developed by immigrants.
Walter Brasch’s latest books are America’s Unpatriotic Acts: The Federal Government’s Violation of Constitutional and Civil Rights, a study of the PATRIOT Act; and "Unacceptable": The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina. You may contact Dr. Brasch through his website, www.walterbrasch.com or by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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