Monday, May 22, 2006


Odd to sit in a place named SANTA BARBARA and read of efforts in the Senate to declare English the national and/or common language.

Earlier today I heard Lou Dobbs pointing out, as if it meant something relevant, that in Mexico the official language is Spanish. I suppose Dobbs may be ignorant of the suppression of indigenous languages in Mexico. Naming a language "official" serves two opposed purposes in differing nations. In some instances, the naming is intended for the protection of a minority language. In others the act is fully intended to lead to the destruction of a language.

The United States has stumbled along quite successfully for centuries without an official language, without even a governmental declaration that English is our common tongue. We have a long history of newspapers in ethnic communities in languages other than English. During my years in San Jose, I noted with interest the routine appearance of poetry in the Spanish and Vietnamese papers of the city. We have had traditions such as Yiddish theater and we have been home to a Nobel prize winner who never wrote any of his novels in English. Joseph Brodsky was an American poet who won the Nobel prize for poetry written in Russian. We were pleased to make him our Poet Laureate. The Senate did not, on that occasion, feel obliged to tell him that he had no right to expect to be able to have a translator assist him. Of course, he spoke English; but doesn't our naming of a Russian language poet as our Poet Laureate, an act, after all, of our Library of Congress, fit oddly next to these current measures in Congress?

We write Latin phrases on our money and insignia -- Nobody seems to complain that we spend tax funds to translate those phrases.

Our language is American. We kvetch in it. We elect Austrian governors who say things like "Hasta la vista, baby."

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