Americans Are More Than The Language They Speak

Who are we? According to Republicans, if you don’t speak English, you aren’t an American. They demand immigrants “assimilate,” which is their way of saying they must become conservatives; walk the walk, but also talk the talk.

They didn’t start it. Noah Webster, in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, called for a national language as the logical conclusion to our political revolution, and suggested that if we’re not all speaking the same language, we’re committing treason “against the character and dignity of a brave an independent people” – ourselves.

What is the link between language and culture, or language between and identity? Are, for example, French Canadians less Canadian than speakers of English? And if not, why are Spanish-speaking Americans less American than English speakers?

Scholar Greg Fisher, studying the place of Arabs in the Roman-Persian world of Late Antiquity, notes that “the dominance of language as a marker of ‘ethnic’ identity in the modern world is so powerful and familiar a phenomenon that we might wonder if the same held true in antiquity.”

Sure, the ancient Greeks chided the Macedonians for speaking a barbarian tongue, and sure, even in the polyglot Roman Empire, Greek and Latin were the languages of government, but you could speak Syriac and be a Roman citizen. The Romans felt superior, but language was less a national identifier. They might have liked to make broad generalizations about various “races” but they would follow an Arab emperor.

Fisher points out that “linguistic nationalism is a modern idea.” In the Republican Party, it is tied to ethnic nationalism, and nobody should need convincing that we won’t see Americans elect an Arab president any time soon, though his ethnicity might be less an issue than his religion.

A black man with an odd-sounding (to English ears) name has the same problem. Indeed, even though his English is more refined and concise than that of many of his critics (he knows “moron” is not spelled with an ‘a’ for example), Barack Hussein Obama can’t be an American, critics say, because his skin is the wrong color and he isn’t the right kind of Christian, if he is Christian at all.

Stephane Hessel, who was a member of the French Resistance as well as a concentration camps survivor, who inspired #Occupy and the Arab Spring, and who moreover was born German but became French, wrote that “no one is ever just ‘French’ or ‘German.'”

Or American? (And I won’t even get into the issue of Americans who barely speak an intelligible English)

Indeed, in the antebellum South, you were not just an American, but a Virginian, perhaps more so the latter: Robert E. Lee’s devotion was to a state, a geographical location rather than a lofty ideal of states united.

Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, who lost his country, and as an emigre wrote in French, said that, “One does not inhabit a country; one inhabits a language. That is our country, our fatherland — and no other.”

Hessel, citing Cioran’s words, pointed out that, “Since I speak three languages, I have chosen to have as many home countries as languages I speak – and since two of those languages are spoken globally, my sense of belonging perhaps extends beyond the mere borders of my home nations.”

You could go further than that. According to Plutarch, Athenian philosopher Socrates said, “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” Socrates didn’t have to speak all the languages of the world to believe that. He likely spoke only Greek. But his thought transcended the limits of his language.

This is not something Noah Webster would have understood. And it is all nonsense to Republicans, of course. There is no room in such thinking for nationalism, let alone American exceptionalism. Yet my great-great grandfather, who spoke Swedish and not English, came to this country from Sweden and fought for his adopted country in the Civil War. Many of the Republicans who speak most vehemently of American exceptionalism have never served this country, even when speaking the appropriate language.

Is being American more about talking the talk than walking the walk after all?

Who is more American? The Swede who does not speak but serves, or the Republican who speaks but does not serve? Perhaps this is not a question to a Republican’s liking; it is not simple enough an equation for an ideology that allows only either/or.

As Hessel pointed out, language has community-building abilities and man is a social creature. For all of modern conservatism’s talk of personal responsibility, as President Obama said, “You didn’t build that.” None of us do it alone. The early pioneers would walk miles a day to help their neighbors erect a cabin or plow a field and to be helped in turn.

In places like 1850s Minnesota, neither of them had to be speaking English, but make no mistake, they were both Americans, building the American dream in a new world full of opportunity.

Here is another question a Republican might not understand, asked by Hessel:

You may in fact feel more belonging to a city or a neighborhood rather than to an actual country; or to a religion, a skin color, a long lost origin, a real or imagined physical place or perhaps even a sexual orientation, an ideology. Indeed, who should a Turk of Berlin from Kreuzberg who is also a homosexual with leftist tendencies and Sufi sensibilities choose to be? We are all aggregations of different references, sometimes quite contradictory in appearance.

Aggregates of different references. Those are fighting words in Red States.

And nonsense to the white Evangelical Texas male wearing BDUs and waving a Confederate battle flag with an AR-15 slung across his back. You’re either American, which means you share his referents, or you are “other,” which might mean you have brown skin, or feel attraction to your own sex, or worship the wrong god (or none), or have those leftist tendencies, or maybe just think America isn’t perfect, or all of the above.

The wrong answer to any of them means you should just leave.

Never mind that the Founding Fathers established a secular government, or that our Texan is waving the wrong flag.

There are plenty of socially liberal conservatives out there. There are plenty of Catholics who pay no attention to their priesthood, some of whom insist their congregants eschew contraceptives while they sodomize those same congregants’ young boys. Just saying you’re something doesn’t make you something. You have to show it.

How much does what language we speak matter? Will Durant, synthesizing Aristotle, wrote that, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

We should strive to be excellent then, in whatever language we were brought up to speak. Language is a referent, one of many. There are many people who speak no English at all who have a much better idea of what it is to be an American than some who speak it as a first language.

Zealots, true believers, extremists, people for whom one belief drowns out the world’s nuanced medley, who embrace either/or thinking, wield language, like religion, as a weapon.

And that is the thing. As Hessel said, we are aggregations. Often of conflicting ideologies or sentiments. Few of us are all one thing or another. The one thing we all share – the one thing we must all share – is the idea of America. The idea of liberty.

Humans are social animals. We build communities. Our English ancestors did not always speak English, but Celtic and Latin and German and Norse and French. I think we can trust ourselves to find a way to communicate.

Image from Conservative Cotton

25 Replies to “Americans Are More Than The Language They Speak”

  1. K, should we speak the same American as former president George W. Bush did or should it be the same as former president Bill Clinton? How about former NYC mayor Ed Koch or former South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, former Alaska half Governor Sarah Palin or former California governator Arnold Schwarzenegger or former presidents FDR, JFK and LBJ?

    I’m asking because none of these people spoke/speak the same American as this Okie does.


  2. Bravo to your honorable great-great grandfather, a credit to Sweden, to the USA, and to humanity.

    I am an American. I speak 5 languages and read 3 alphabets. And Here’s my definition of patriotism:

    A country is nothing more than a patch of land with people on it. If you really love your country, you will

    1) Respect your fellow citizens
    2) Obey your country’s laws,
    and 3) protect your country’s environment.

    Right-wingers pretty much fail on 2 if not 3 counts.

  3. Just a reminder. All those brown skinned people trying to cross the southern border or those who already did are practically more American than any other ethnic group in this continent. That is just a fact.

  4. Would it be ‘just a fact’ because the vast majority of folks crossing the U.S.of A.’s borders come from either North or South America?

  5. You forgot to include the word “wit” between the words “half” and “governor” in the following sentence:
    “former Alaska half Governor Sarah Palin”

    It would be much more accurate had that been included.

  6. Finally, we’re going to talk about something besides Trump/Kelley and the “debate”!

    So “American Exceptionalism” (My spellcheck doesn’t like that word, did they make it up?) means that, except for the trolls, the people who frequent this blog aren’t American? That, to be an American, you have to be white (with a red neck), English-speaking (and not as a second lanquage), heterosexual, and attend a church (Christian, or course) at least twice a year (Easter and Christmas)? Well, I, for one, take exception to that.

    I’m surprised they don’t leave out women.

  7. While I agree with the sentiment of this article and particularly like the term “aggregate”, there is something missing.

    It isn’t just white conservatives demanding the use of language to determine “otherness”. Almost all of us are guilty of finding otherness. Innies and outies is common in every social grouping. The call to ignore that is notable and even heroic, but fails the reality test.

    Face it. You know who is in and who is out in dozens of different contexts in your daily life. Yeah, it sucks, but that doesn’t make it go away.

    I support using a common language not to claim some imagined superiority, but to reduce the costs of doing business. How many needless expenditures are born by each one of us as government forms must be printed in two, three, or a dozen different languages? How many “interpreters” must a business hire?

    Language “otherness” isn’t that simple.

  8. I’m Canadian, but consider myself a North American (probably because I am!). No doubt someone here who lives in Mexico ALSO considers herself North American. And I’m betting both of us resent the fact that the term “American” has come, universally, to refer only to the United States.

    We frequently stand back with slightly gaping mouths when we witness such overt “patriotism” (hand over heart while singing national anthem), Pledge of Allegiance in school every morning (smacks a little of overdone nationalism, if you catch my drift…) and every President pronouncing that “America is the very best country in the world” and “Only in America can you do x, y and z”. Nope, not true.

    So it comes as no surprise that a certain contingent of mostly white folk behave the way they do, does it? What they’re really saying is “If you don’t look/talk/act like me, you are not American”.

    Sorry about this Sunday morning rant!

  9. This is just another huge difference between LIBERALS & conservatives, of course we’re more than just our language. But leave it to the ”usual suspects” to find yet another way to segregate! My theory is, people who gravitate towards liberalism are generally open minded, caring, tolerant and enlightened! people who gravitate towards conservatism are generally very narrow in their social views, typically associate with people who LOOK and share their narrow views, ONLY. Conservatives are usually caucasian because this country HISTORY reeks of savagery towards ANYONE who wasn’t caucasian and shared their myopic mindset of ignorance of history and facts. Theres a very good reason why the conservatives “89%” are caucasian, it’s 240 plus YEARS of WHITE PRIVILEGE! remember the 2007 election? when Obama won, I clearly remember MANY caucasians losing their god damn MINDS! teenage girls literally CRYING! this crusty old white lady screaming, “I WANT MY COUNRTY BACK!” remember?

  10. I don’t know what is an American. I would think that since we come from all corners of the Earth we bring our cultures and mix them together to make America

    the only true thing that is American is Jazz music.

  11. I’m SORRY! I’m just not the type of american that just buys this american exceptionalism! WHY? lol because I’ve studied quite a bit of american history and it ain’t pretty! BTW that’s another and maybe the biggest difference between LIBERALS & conservatives, I find most conservatives to be intellectually LAZY or intellectually dishonest, most conservatives don’t know $HIT about THEIR own HISTORY! that’s why I typically blow off republicans! you can’t reason with, debate, a simple minded A$SHOLE who doesn’t even know or comprehend THEIR own HISTORY! remember those south american CHILDREN who crossed the boarder because their lives were literally at risk? well, what group was hollering and screaming profanities at them? YOU’RE god damn RIGHT! LILY WHITE conservative! oh MY bad, LILY WHITE “CHRISTIAN” conservative. conservatives just don’t get it! we’re ALL in this together! somebody needs to tell that to all those conservative “CHRISTIANS”, language? NO! it bigger than…

  12. James Clifford wrestles with this in his ‘Predicament of Culture.’ Highly recommended.

    Language is a ‘comfy’ indicator for less cosmopolitan populations.

    When Western civ exploded across the globe, they established language and religion as markers of class, status and belonging. Like the primitive village life of Europe, strict markers of ‘belonging’ became a touchstone for rural Euro-americans.

    The more rural societies of the south are contracting back to feudal peasant status, where any deviation from the local comfy is greeted by rage and fear. The public education which brought Humanities and social egalitarianism to rural areas has been deliberately throttled by the aristocracy.

    Their abandonment by State government has left them stranded from the American mainstream, so they revert back to what they perceive as their comfy zone. Killer cops, religious hysteria and random violence. The ‘good old days.’

  13. You’re so correct.

    Many US citizens don’t understand many true facts:
    Canada is not the 51st state, just because you speak English.

    Canada, the States (as Canadians call us) and Mexico are all Americans, North Americans to be exact.

    Canada is a duel languange country, English and French and both must be used everywhere and on eveything.

    The states doesn’t have an official language, eventhough most believe we do.

    US citizens are offended when someone doesn’t speak English here, but most expect other countries to speak English even when visting that country.

    US citizens were too damn lazy to convert to the metric system back in the 1970’s, so speaking another language is out of the question. I use the metric system of weigh when I bake, because it’s EASIER and MORE PRECISE.

  14. Canada is not the 51st state
    No its Israel with AIPAC pulling the strings getting the presumed next Senate Democratic leader to vote against the President in trying to send us to war with Iran. But we must have our bread and circus debating America most clown idol

  15. Canada is a duel language country and English and French are required on everything.
    It doesn’t cost much more for them to provide this.

    Los Angeles County is required to provide ballots in Spanish, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Khmer, Thai and Hindi.
    Los Angeles also has a little Tokyo, Koreatown, a little Armenia, Filipinotown, Chinatown, Japantown and others what I can’t remember.

    Citizen of other countries are taught other languanges, especially English.

    Why are so many US citizens offended when others don’t speak English here, but those same people expect others to speak English when visiting other countries??

  16. liberals are more globally minded and understand we’re not the only ones on this planet.

    I remember the late 60’s when the metric system was going to begin to be used here. In 1975 president Ford signed a bill to make this happen faster, but we were too LAZY and not globally minded to convert over. By 1981 the conversion effort died.
    We’re the LAZIEST damn country and watching other countries whizzing PAST us!

    I have a 1969 (reprinted in 1979) Betty Crocker cookbook that states on page 362 “The metric system is arriving gradually…” and there is a chocolate chip cookie recipe in metric. I guess 40 years is gradual, huh?…more like NEVER.
    When I bake, I weigh the dry ingredients in grams because it’s EASIER and more PRECISE.

  17. We don’t all have to eat the same foods and listen to the same music, but for our multiracial and multiethnic society to work, we do have to have certain things in common — and being able to communicate with one another is on that list.

    Here’s my top-ten list of what we should expect from those who want to become Americans (and those who are already Americans, for that matter). The list is fleshed out in Congressional testimony [link: ]:

    1. Don’t disparage anyone else’s race or ethnicity.
    2. Respect women.
    3. Learn to speak English.
    4. Be polite.
    5. Don’t break the law.
    6. Don’t have children out of wedlock.
    7. Don’t demand anything because of your race or ethnicity.
    8. Don’t view working and studying hard as “acting white.”
    9. Don’t hold historical grudges.
    10. Be patriotic and proud of being an American.

  18. When you say that conservatives are mainly white, I believe you are wrong. I live in the Bay Area/San Francisco and of course we have a huge Hispanic population but the Asians are catching up as the fastest growing minority in the Area. They are conservative when it comes to social issues. Blacks too are conservative on social issues. So don’t say that just whites are conservative.

  19. I am Hispanic. I was born in NM. My family has been in NM for over four centuries. Spanish is my native language. I am whiter than most “white” people are. Because I am bi-lingual, I have a more powerful English vocabulary than most “white” people.

    Re making English the official language, the article at the link is a great read. It explains that the USA would be a German speaking nation if some guy hadn’t had diarrhea when the vital vote occurred.

    The bit about diarrhea is BS but the article really is a scholarly effort about “official language” phobia. Read it. You might learn something. [WINK]

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