Language is a mystery that has baffled science and religion since the first recorded utterance of upright man. The Bible makes much mention of the cacophony of languages in the Tower of Babel story, and modern-day anthropologists and linguists still ruminate with no consensus over just what piece of the genetic or environmental puzzle contains the answer to the existence and persistence of varied and distinct languages, often spoken only a few miles apart. Despite a spate of new books on the origins of language -- including The Horse, The Wheel and Language (David Anthony, Princeton Books), which traces the Proto-Indo-European language to the steppes of Eurasia by combining anthropology and archeology with linguistics -- the quest to find a comfortable theory of language remains elusive.
It is lamented that today only 6,700 languages remain on earth. This seems an ample number, considering the march of nationalism over the past 150 years, during which formerly distinct local languages and dialects were passed by or forgotten in the process of forming political statehood. In Latin America in the 1820s and 1830s, Spanish and Portuguese replaced native dialects during independence from Spain and Portugal. Later, in Europe, the rise of democracy and dominant tongues left behind dozens of local languages that are now forgotten. The new nations formed after World War II in the wake of the end of European empires in Africa, India, the Pacific, and the Caribbean suppressed native languages and dialects to allow the language of statehood to take control of public life.
The newest catalyst to the unification of language is the gallop of free market trade and globalization since the 1980s, spurred to breakneck pace with the ensuing collapse of the Soviet monolith and the end of socialist command economies. Now the strain on local languages is not from the forces that build new nations, but rather economic and cultural realities that require the nations themselves to forge a global method of communication -- a lingua franca for the New Millennium, an overarching language that transcends local dialect for the purpose of trade, finance, diplomacy, and cultural communication.
In the West, the ancient Greeks receive credit for creating the first lingua franca of the Western world to facilitate commerce, diplomacy, and colonial governance amongst speakers of hundreds of different tongues. Later, the Roman Empire, lording over thousands of local languages, made Latin the lingua franca of the known world. Chaos reigned after the fall of the western Roman Empire, as no ruler or language could control the warring tribes left after the collapse. Latin went out of use except in the Roman Catholic Church, whose priests and scribes kept it alive in the Dark Ages, allowing its survival today as the lingua franca of scholarship and scientific classification.
In the 9th century AD, Charlemagne created the Frankish empire in what is now France and Germany, causing French to become the lingua franca of Europe that survives today as the language of diplomacy around the world. German rose from the competing mélange of languages left over from Roman and Frankish days to survive with Latin as the lingua franca of the world of science. Italian emerged from its Roman roots to serve as the language of music and art criticism. In the 20th century, Russian was spread by totalitarianism as a lingual blanket over hundreds of languages and dialects in the former Soviet Union, but was unable to take hold except through force. Chinese with its myriad dialects and Japanese serve as the lingua francas of the Orient. And Arabic, the ancient lingua franca of the Near East, is very much in use today (as we are learning the hard way).
English began its steady climb to modern world dominance in the 16th century with the rise of the British Empire. Riding on the waves of trade and a strong navy, English spread as the lingua franca of world commerce. The founding of the United States, the most successful nation in history in terms of economic and military power, caused English to supersede all previous lingua francas. Technology and free market world trade assure that it will continue to be the world's dominant tongue, the medium of communication, and the language of democracy that all nations must master to survive in the global economy.
Nearly all leaders of foreign nations now speak English in order to communicate with the rest of the world, as do bond traders, tech geeks, scholars, diplomats, businesspeople -- just about every player in the world economy. Air traffic controllers exemplify this global usage of English. Ever wonder how an Air China pilot communicates to the tower while landing in Moscow? In English, proving it to be truly the first and foremost international lingua franca.
Then why is it that English has been under attack by radicals of the Left since the 1960s? Why aren't we smiling broadly that our language is the dominant lingua franca, and likely to remain so well into the unknown future? It goes back to the Marxist-inspired campus activists of 35 years ago who signed on to the doctrine that America was a corrupt, racist, chauvinistic, and imperialistic evil power that needed to be brought down. The war in Vietnam was the focus, but the intent was to bring revolution to Main Street by any means, including violence.
An instructive anecdote from the era occurred at San Francisco State University in 1968 when radical students and outside activists occupied the administration building where SI Hayakawa sat as president of the school. Hayakawa stood his ground against the demonstrators and gained popular attention, which he used to run for the United States Senate in 1972. He won, and for 18 years until his death while in office, he introduced at each session of the Senate a bill to make English the official language of the United States. Each time his bill failed.
That's right. English, while embraced worldwide as the modern lingua franca, is not our official language. Actually, we don't have one, and Hayakawa knew why: anti-American activists see English as the language of oppression, not democracy and freedom, and they have maintained an undercurrent of opposition to it even in the wake of the American victory in the Cold War. This explains why anti-American activists lobbied for federal monies to support English as a second language in our school systems -- not the first language for Spanish-speaking immigrants -- working behind the scenes in the labyrinth of the federal bureaucracy to alter the curriculum to their whim.
Bobby Kennedy's embrace of grape-worker/union boss Cesar Chavez in 1968 during his bid for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States solidified a pressure group to represent Spanish-speaking immigrants, legal and illegal. That explains why in a nation of immigrants, from the early settlers through the massive waves of new citizens who arrived in the late 19th century, one particular group is imbued with elevated status. For the first time in our history, signage, government documents, and a myriad of transactional events in our culture are bilingual, elevating Spanish to equal footing with English.
Early new Americans learned English out of pride for their new country -- and out of necessity to engage in the capitalistic system. It made sense then and it makes sense now, yet the movement to prevent the recent wave of immigrants, mostly from Latin America, from becoming integrated and successful citizens by not teaching them English as the foundation for their success is alive and well-funded. Imagine moving to a foreign country and discovering that the government allows you to enforce the use of your native tongue by law. It's ridiculous, yet it's happening in America today.
Attack of the Deconstructionists
The guerrilla war to demean English became a component of the enduring campaign to malign the American system. The student radicals, now grownups with tenure, have carried the culture war to the liberal arts with a strategy to tear down Western values. Their primary tools are a doctrine vaguely named "multiculturalism" and its tactical twin, politically correct behavior and language. And language plays the key role in this campaign.
According to the campus practitioners of post-modern theory -- the so-called "critical scholars" -- the English language is used as a weapon by the dominant culture to browbeat the underachievers. The Ebonics movement serves as a potent example of the lengths the language radicals will go to to denigrate English in order to elevate other cultures. Essentially, the theory starts with the premise that language prejudices the value of texts. The campus professoriate first teaches students to deconstruct written works. For example, a professor will stand in front of a class and hold up a sonnet by Shakespeare and a box of cereal and charge students to translate the words and letters of both texts into symbols, a process called symbiotics. After completion of this task, students can see that the words of Shakespeare and the advertising language on the back of a box of Cheerios are basically the same after they are "deconstructed."
The end result is to demonstrate that our culture ascribes value to the words of Shakespeare over the words on the cereal box only because we are conditioned to do so by our oppressive, chauvinistic, and homophobic white-male-dominated culture. The goal is to convince students that after the oppressive words are deconstructed, no nation or culture is better than another -- that the architecture of New Guinea is equal to the cathedrals of Europe; that the oral tradition of stone-age tribal societies is as significant as the literature of Europe; and so on and so on. The final conclusion is that what the West calls achievement is actually mere propaganda forced on citizens by the ruling elite via the English language.
In post-modern deconstructionist departments of English and other liberal arts programs, multiculturalism is directly related to the movement now labeled "politically correct," an offshoot of the language component of the doctrine. In a typical contradiction common to intellectual constructs, language is on one hand criticized as a code to keep people subjected, but adopted by campus radicals as a potent weapon to enforce speech codes that insulate alleged victimized cultures and individuals from criticism. The PC police use language to enforce their rules, just as they say the West uses language to suppress other, less achieving cultures.
The Enemy Within
In an irony that surpasses comprehension, The Modern Language Association, an organization of English teachers, is the leader of the politically correct movement to bring down English. There has been a constant flow of rhetoric from MLA meetings criticizing English as racist, imperialistic, chauvinistic, and homophobic. The result is that the guardians of our language are actually its worst enemy.
Other Western nations protect their languages. The French Academy, attuned to France's high self-regard, vehemently monitors usage in classrooms and in the media. In Russia, the Orthographic Commission of the Department of Language and Literature meets regularly to protect proper usage of Russian. English, however, is not protected by its cultural elite. Instead, it is criticized and de-emphasized, most notably on college campuses turning out graduates who are reading-deficient and writing-handicapped.
Worse, these students have been denied the pride of ownership of their tongue and the knowledge and joy it can offer to create a fulfilling life.
The US needs to adopt English as our official language before we lose our national identity, our cultural heritage, and our system of government. And it is far past time to investigate what is happening on our college campuses, where post-modern doctrine, radical deconstruction theory, multiculturalism, and the "politically correct" movement...and the thought police that go with it. The academy should be called on the carpet to explain why they are taking public money and private tuition to undermine and destroy our heritage. Let's tell them in plain English that we want our language back.
Bernie Reeves is editor and publisher of Raleigh Metro Magazine