Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON
LECTURE ONE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d__In2PQS60
LECTURE TWO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al7O2puvdDA

ALSO AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ONE THROUGH TEN ON IDEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE



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Friday, September 4, 2015

SE HABLA ESPANOL


Once again the cry goes up in Republican circles for people living in this country to speak English.  The same people who are unnerved by anyone who dresses differently or has a different skin tone or worships a different god are driven to despair by the realization that some of their neighbors actually speak a different language.  I think it might be useful to recall a little history.

Let us begin with the founding of the American Republic.  Some of you may be surprised to learn that in the late eighteenth century, a lively debate took place concerning what ought to be the new nation's official language.  English was of course a popular option, but in some colonies, such as Pennsylvania, German gave English a good run for its money .  There was even a small town that decided a new nation needed a new language, and went about creating an entirely new tongue for the fledgling Republic [I do not actually know their creation, but I suspect it was not much more imaginative than Pig Latin.  Making up a really new language is rather a difficult task, as J. R. R. Tolkein could have attested.]

In the latter nineteenth century, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe began to pour into the United States.  They tended to settle in welcoming neighborhoods, with the result that entire areas were completely dominated by new arrivals speaking something other than English.  In the big cities of the Northeast, there were Italian neighborhoods, Polish neighborhoods, and German neighborhoods.  Everyone was Roman Catholic, of course, but in the neighborhood churches, the sermons were preached in Italian, Polish, or German.  [This was well before Vatican Two, so the Mass itself was celebrated in Latin no matter what the neighborhood.]

The transformation of newcomers to "Americans" has tended to be a three generation process.  The first generation -- the adults who got off the boats at Castle Garden or Ellis Island, continued to speak their mother tongues, shopping in local grocery stores in Italian or German or Russian, or Chinese, and learning no more than a few words of English in many cases.  The mother tongue was spoken at home, so the children grew up learning it fluently, but in order to make their way in school, they had to master English.  They quite often married the sons or daughters of immigrants from different countries, to the great distress of their parents, so they in turn spoke English at home, even though they spoke German or Italian or Chinese when they took the grandchildren to see the old folks.  Their children -- the third generation -- were native English speakers and very often knew no more than a few words of the traditional language.

When my grandfather, Barnet Wolff, ran for office on the Socialist Party ticket, his schedule of appearances was listed in The Call, the leading English language Socialist newspaper.  The paper listed him as speaking sometimes in English and sometimes in "Jewish" -- what we would call Yiddish.  Other candidates were announced as speaking in Italian, for example.  Readers of The Call could choose the street corner that suited their linguistic preferences.

This has been the story of America from its founding and before.  The current nativist abhorrence of Spanish-speaking Americans is both ugly and ignorant.  Donald Trump's mother was born in Scotland.  His father's parents were German immigrants.  Piyush Jindal, who goes by  the name of Bobby, was in utero when his parents immigrated from India [thus making him an anchor baby.]  Rick Santorum's father came to America at the age of seven from Italy.  Only the Native Americans can lay claim to being indigenous, and even in their case, of course, the migration was just a trifle earlier.

4 comments:

NotHobbes said...

On behalf of the people of Scotland, I sincerely apologise for Donald Trump.
We're a small nation, just five million people. That's mainly attributable to our well known diaspora, through coercion, force and more latterly economic aspiration. I suppose we were bound to throw up one bad apple now and again.
Sorry :-(

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Your apology is gratefully accepted. One can only imagine what havoc he might have wrought in so confined a space. Our loss is your gain!

Jim Westrich said...

There were a lot of German speakers in colonial America and there were delegates from Pennsylvania that tried unsuccessfully to get federal documents published in German as well as English but I think even in Pennsylvania the English-only types were always in firm control. People often forget that the celebrated Franklin said things like this (who knew Germans were so swarthy!):

“Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?” (The Papers of Benjamin Franklin Ed. Leonard W. Labaree. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1959. vol 4:234).

The worst example though came in post-WWI Iowa when the governor (William Harding) proposed and helped pass a law ("Babel Proclamation") that forbade any speaking of a foreign language in any public conversation. That "law" was repealed half a year later.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jim, that is a marvelous addition to my musings. Thank you. The Franklin quote is extraordinary.