A viral video making the rounds in December bore the very descriptive title “Ten Germans Try to Say the Word ‘Squirrel’” — and nobody seemed to think that it was racist or xenophobic, even though our Teutonic friends were being held up as figures of fun for something that is deeply embedded in their culture. Indeed, the Germans seemed to be as much amused as anybody else. The phenomenon is nothing new to students of linguistics: Not every phoneme exists in every language, and it is extraordinarily difficult for adults to process phonemes that are not part of their linguistic patrimony. Anglophone adults learning Sanskrit have a desperately hard time with the difference between aspirated and non-aspirated “d” sounds, just as somebody who had been raised hearing nothing but Japanese would find it difficult or impossible to distinguish between “r” and “l” sounds in English. Native speakers of non-tonal languages have a rough time with Chinese. Welsh, Romanian, and Dutch all contain sounds that are famous for being unpronounceable by the Anglophone. A “burro” is an ass, and a “burrow” is a hole in the ground, but your typical English-speaking person can’t tell one from the other.
This sort of thing is terribly distressing to Matthew Salesses, fiction editor at The Good Men Project, an online magazine, who published a hilariously self-parodic essay titled “Racism in the Classroom: When Even Our Names Are Not Our Own.” He began with this tale of pearl-clutching terror, his soul pierced by the unsettling childhood recollections of a classmate:
He described how, when he was a boy, he couldn’t figure out what a certain newscaster’s name was. The student complained that because the newscaster pronounced his name with a “Mexican” accent, he couldn’t understand it.
There are many possible explanations for this episode. But, racism?
Setting aside the sneer quotes around “Mexican” — as though there were no such thing as a Mexican accent — it is very likely that the boy complained that he could not understand the pronunciation of the broadcaster’s name not because he was a budding ethnolinguistic chauvinist but because he could not understand the pronunciation of the broadcaster’s name, any more than the typical English-speaking man walking the streets of Bakersfield can tell the शूर from the सुर. The story calls to mind a pained book chapter in which linguistic anthropologist Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer considers the famous Saturday Night Live skit in which a bunch of painfully correct Anglos in conversation with Jimmy Smits’s “Antonio Mendoza” use ever more lamely Hispanic-ish pronunciations of common English words and phrases — “Loh-HANG-ee-less” for Los Angeles, “kah-MAHRRR-oh” for the Chevy sports car, etc. Professor Ottenheimer writes that the skit expresses “the extreme ambivalence and complexity of ideologies about Spanish in the United States,” and she worries that under some interpretations Mr. Smits might be seen as “playing into the hands of anti-Spanish sentiment.” This discussion takes place under the heading “Mock Spanish: A Site for the Indexical Reproduction of Racism in American English.” Calvin and Hobbes takes a beating, too, when the racially insensitive stuffed tiger imagines himself as a fearsome potentate called “El Tigre Numero Uno.”
We have set the bar for racism pretty low.
Rather than detecting in the story above the invisible background radiation of racism that so appalls Mr. Salesses, I myself sympathize with the boy’s linguistic frustration; I have an unusually detailed recollection of my very early childhood, and vividly remember the intense irritation I felt at my limited ability to understand verbal communication and to make myself understood in turn. I recall my mother asking me if I wanted a “half sandwich” and trying to figure out where “half” fit into my known categories of sandwiches — a universe consisting of bologna, Spam, pimento cheese spread, and fried hot dogs halved vertically — unable to understand the word and also unable to explain my inability. The unfamiliar surname pronounced with a Mexican accent would have presented a similar sort of frustration: It would sound like gibberish, but the context would suggest that it was not. Such perplexing situations are what make childhood such a terrifying time. (That terror, I suspect, is related to why we forget so much of our earliest days, the neural settling of later childhood acting as our own personal Piper at the Gates of Dawn: “Lest the awe should dwell / And turn your frolic to fret / You shall look on my power at the helping hour / But then you shall forget!”)
The emotional aspect of linguistic development is an interesting subject: Compare the first sentence of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to the novel’s final pages to appreciate James Joyce’s sensitive treatment of the subject. It takes more than being vulgar to consider the great swath of human experience and within its every fold and surprise to see everywhere and always racism — it takes faith. In the civil religion of the United States, racism is not only a deplorable set of beliefs, but a mythic character in its own right, the great antagonist of all things good, the eternal enemy, “curse of all creation, winged serpent of the pit, monstrosity.” In the American secular scripture, racism is Satan.
It is no accident that American progressives put so many of us in mind of our Puritan ancestors: not for their virtues, such as they are, but for their sanctimoniousness, their humorlessness, their grim little mouths set permanently in rictuses (surely Mr. Salesses would insist on “ricti”) of self-satisfaction biting down on disgust. Like the accusers in 17th-century Salem or the contemporary Wahhabist eager to behead such witches as may be found lingering upon Saudi soil, the progressive sees the work of the Archnemesis everywhere at all times — especially when there is something to be gained from doing so.