The Magazine

American Speak

This tongue has many colors.

Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By SARA LODGE
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It is sobering to find, through Little’s travels, that most of these remarkable and intricate languages are under threat of extinction. Linguist Michael Krauss has estimated that of the 175 indigenous languages still spoken in the United States, 90 percent are at risk. Although the 19th-century decree, reflected in early 20th-century educational policy, that “the Indian tongue must be put to silence and nothing but the English allowed in all social intercourse” is now discredited, the damage done by decades of negativism and neglect will be difficult to undo. Little reveals that Harvard teaches courses in Old Norse and Sanskrit but none in any Native-American language. 

Everywhere in her tour of America, Little encounters vibrant language clusters: groups which cherish rich, mixed linguistic heritages. But, equally, she meets with many people who, for various reasons (race, class, politics), have been forcibly made to abandon their linguistic heritage. This is heartbreaking, and one leaves this book with a strong conviction that it must stop.

Languages matter, not just because they are beautiful in themselves, but because they express a unique way of thinking and being in the world. Making a person ashamed of his or her birth language is akin to making that person ashamed of his or her birth family: It is a process of self-alienation that produces deep and lasting harm. Better than any tribal headdress or slave-sewn quilt (objects which American museums rightly treasure), a language can take us into a culture, as it has developed and been passed down over centuries, and offer us a chance to engage with its living form, color, subjectivity, and creativity. A language is a time machine: When we lose it, we lose the chance to speak with our ancestors.

As Little points out, many of the words that seem most American originate in other languages. “Yankee” may derive from “Jan Kees” (John Cheese), an affectionate Dutch dig at New Englanders. Many American state names have Native-American roots. Languages other than English are much closer to “home” than many American citizens who think they speak only English realize. Both Speaking American and Trip of the Tongue are gentle and eloquent pleas for America to recognize and celebrate its linguistic diversity as a key strength.

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English  at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-
Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.