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Trigger-Happy Idioms

Language Wars

Lest you take these English words for granted, consider this: when the United States was founded, only 40 percent of the people living within its boundaries spoke English as their first language. Widener Library’s shelves hold testaments to our multilingual past: 125,000 imprints, from newspapers to novels, in languages other than English, all written by American residents throughout U.S. history.

Today, about 87 percent of U.S. residents speak English as their first language. What happened since 1776 is a matter of history—of contest, conflict, even persecution. In the antebellum South, for example, slaveowners and traders sometimes cut out the tongues of slaves unable or unwilling to speak English. When General Benjamin Butler was commanding the Union troops occupying New Orleans in 1862, he had some Francophones executed—specifically, some scholars believe, to discourage the use of French. In subsequent decades, Blackfoot Indians sent to boarding schools were forbidden to speak their native language, and were beaten if they did so. During World War I, certain state and local governments proscribed speaking German in public, hoping to dampen old allegiances among the nation’s six million German immigrants. And throughout U.S. history, other less dramatic factors have contributed to English’s emergence as our dominant tongue.

Far from seeing English as the spoils of conflict, however, many Anglophone Americans may be unaware they speak a particular language at all. English is like the air they breathe: natural, given, right. "The social fiction is that English isn’t there," says Marc Shell, Babbitt professor of comparative literature and professor of English, who recently published an article, "Language Wars," in the New Centennial Review. "We never think about it. We just completely take it for granted." Shell’s collection of essays, American Babel, will be issued by Harvard University Press later this year; he is also working on another book on language conflict. Language is rarely a given, Shell says—a fact of which many groups are painfully aware. Language, he asserts, is a key battleground for national and cultural conflict.

Most observers tend to explain political conflicts around the world as the result of racial, ethnic, religious, or territorial disputes; we rarely see language as a direct and fundamental cause. "What I’m trying to do is reintroduce the category of language into our thinking about political conflict," says Shell, himself an immigrant from bilingual Quebec. Doing so puts many clashes in a new light. Take the war in the Balkans, for example. In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic ordered Albanians to speak Serbian. They refused. Shell believes it’s useful to see their refusal as a specific cause of conflict—more useful than understanding the war only in ethnic and religious terms.

The role of language in political conflict is important, Shell says, simply because tensions over language are increasing. With 6,700 languages in the world, by some scholars’ count, and only 225 "nation-states"—and with the nation-state and its ideal of a unifying single language in decline—complex webs of resistance, dominance, and cooperation among language groups grow. Paradoxically, the webs can be so complex, Shell says, that we lose sight of conflicts’ linguistic roots.

There’s another fundamental reason to look to language as the source of tension: it is more tangible than race or religion. Scholars increasingly understand race to be a fiction: belonging to one or another group is more a social and historical matter than a biological one. It can be difficult to tell by looking at a person to which race or ethnicity she considers herself to belong: a Serb can look like an Albanian. Similarly, "You can pretend a Jewish person is Christian," Shell says, "but if he speaks a different language, you can’t pretend he speaks yours."

As one of the most important elements of a culture’s identity, language is also incendiary. A group’s language can feel essential to its very existence. It’s no surprise that often the more vulnerable a group feels, the greater its devotion to its language. "There are different qualities of allegiance," Shell says. Francophones tend to have a more explicit allegiance to their language than Anglophones do. "Most Americans don’t have a close tie to their language of which they are aware. Most don’t believe, for example, that God spoke English. But if we are Muslim, we may believe that God spoke Arabic, or if we are Jewish, Hebrew."

In the United States, conflicts over language persist, particularly in places with large immigrant populations. Having passed an initiative in 1998 that prohibits teaching schoolchildren in any language but English, Californians may be more cognizant of the possibility of "language wars" than other Americans. But Shell can imagine future scenarios with national scope. "If or when we have to negotiate a treaty with Canada or Mexico; if Puerto Rico joins us as a state; if we form a North American union like the one in Europe," he muses, such events could pose particular challenges to English. "If only there weren’t diversity in the world," he says wryly, "everything would be so much easier."

~Nell Lake

Mark Shell e-mail address: mshell[at]fas [dot] harvard [dot] edu