I wouldn’t have thought the importance of the English language in America would be controversial, but our era is full of surprises.
When I was on Morning Joe the other day talking about my book, The Case for Nationalism, the Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson asked, in a skeptical tone, if we should be protecting the status of the English language in our culture.
My emphasis on English was also a bee in the bonnet of Charles King, the book’s reviewer at Foreign Affairs, who said I make “the strangest arguments, which collapse upon the slightest interrogation.” He includes in this category my statement that English is a “pillar of our national identity.”
He further says, accusingly, that one of the things I can’t imagine America without is a dominant role for the English language. In his view, a genuinely inclusive nationalism has to jettison “the idea that liberty is somehow less American if you call it la libertad.”
I never suggested, as you might expect, that saying the word “liberty” in a foreign language somehow negates the value of liberty or makes liberty less American, which would be absurd (I’ll return to all the other preposterous things in the King review at another time). I do, though, spend a lot of time discussing the importance of a common language as a source of social cohesion. Why?
Because our sense of community obviously depends heavily on it. Where a common language is present, it creates a cultural glue; where it isn’t, there are usually deep-seated divisions.
Nice, pleasant Canada has been nearly torn apart in recent decades by the presence of a French-speaking province, Quebec, in an English-speaking country. Equally nice, pleasant Belgium is perennially riven between its French-speaking and Dutch-speaking regions. Spain has been buffeted by an independence movement in Catalonia, where, despite the best efforts of the Spanish central government over the centuries, Catalan is still spoken by much of the population.
On the other hand, the cleavage of Charlemagne’s empire in the 843 Treaty of Verdun between German- and Romance-speaking parts, corresponding roughly to Germany (in all its various forms over the centuries) and France, has endured for more than a millennium.
People have long cared about the status of their language. As early as the fifteenth century, proto-Protestant Hussite rebels agitated in the Holy Roman Empire for more Czech officeholders and greater recognition of their own tongue. The revolt was both religious and national, against an emperor deemed “a great and brutal enemy of the Czech kingdom and language.” Years after the Hussite rebellion had ended, dissidents still accused the pope of seeking “to destroy, wipe out, and utterly suppress the Czech language.”
Language runs very deep. Benedict Anderson writes of how each language “looms up imperceptibly out of a horizonless past.” This is why languages “appear rooted beyond almost anything else in contemporary societies. At the same time, nothing connects us affectively to the dead more than language.” The weight of the words “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” for instance, “derives only in part from their solemn meaning; it comes also from an as-it-were ancestral ‘Englishness.’”
Indeed, the spark for nationalist movements has often been historians, writers, lexicographers, and folklorists who celebrated and promoted vernacular languages and excavated a glorious literary past. The German dictionary of the Brothers Grimm, who famously collected folk-tales, nodded to the primacy of language with its logo “In the beginning was the word.” Poets came to exemplify the national traditions and aspirations of their countries: The Irish had W. B. Yeats, the Poles had Adam Mickiewicz, the Zionists had Haim Bialik, and so on.
This was true as well of composers (Franz Liszt for the Hungarians, Frédéric Chopin for the Poles, Antonin Dvorak for the Czechs), painters (Jacques-Louis David for the French, Henry Fuseli for the Swiss, Viktor Vasnetsov for the Russians), and novelists of great historical epics such as Walter Scott and Leo Tolstoy. The spectacle of opera provided a particularly powerful tableau for national themes.
In short, language occupies an outsized space in the cultural life of nations, and the role of English here in the United States is no different.