The English Language -- For Better or for Worse:
A personal recollection
It strikes me as odd that more people for whom the English language is a recent arrival on the timeline of their ancestry don’t worry more about what they may have lost or how they may have been changed by stepping away from the language of their forebears. The answer probably lies in that area of linguistic science known as linguistic relativity (or the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis) and perhaps not even there. Squabbles over the scientific validity of these theories stay at a slow boil in the academic circles, but little has been discovered that tells us very much about how the language we speak might construct who we are at the deepest level or how our emotional or sentimental feelings for the language we speak contributes to our character.
In my own case I believe about half of my ancestors were conducting their affairs in English as far back as I can trace them in the foggy fens and forests of Northern Europe. But the other half (I picture a crowd of dirty-faced mugs huddles in sheepskins) I know spoke Gaelic (Irish and Scottish), Swedish, German, and Welsh, and I often wonder how my world would be different had I greeted it through the lens of one of those other languages. It would be quite different, I imagine. But I feel pretty comfortable in English, like I'm snuggling a foot into a familiar bedroom slipper. How much of that at-homeness comes from growing up among speakers of English who in turn grew up among speakers of English, and so on back a goodly ways, I do not know. But had I a solid wall of Swedish speakers just a generation behind me, would I feel less at home in English? Again, I don't know.
I do know that I have friends who only learned English years after speaking another language around their childhood home. Some of these friends are more forceful and articulate in English than other folks I know who have a 360 degree English-speaking pedigree but couldn't order a cup of tea with any clarity. Eloquence and articulateness, it seems, don't neatly correlate with the length of non-stop English speaking in your family. But perhaps comfort does.
Jamila Lyiscott, in a poem, perfectly articulates the sort of complaint I would expect to be more widespread. Her relation to English ("I know that I had to borrow your language because mine was stolen /But you can’t expect me to speak your history wholly while mines is broken") is tainted by the poisonous residue seeping ever forward across the centuries from the institution of slavery. Who could blame her for regarding English with a jaded eye?
But her anger, and the anger of millions of English speakers who came by their language in ways they would not have freely chosen, does no real damage to English as it inflects it with slang and idiom. Rather, it invigorates English with the juice of dissent and the sound of new voices. Jamila Lyiscott is still a child of English. Her frustration will be expressed in English and, as the verbal dust settles, English will be recharged and only a little changed at its edge, and it will be stronger for it.
My native language is English (“native” here meaning the language that surrounded me upon and after my nativity) as is hers, but I came by my English through a gentler process than she did, and probably for that reason I bear English no grudges. That is not the case, however, with many of my colleagues in the English teaching and English writing worlds.
Anti-English-language feeling is a growth business. And. in a tribute to the mystery of human nature, it seems to be swelling most among those people who speak it best – or should. I mean well-educated, upper middle-class English teachers. These folks are bent upon acting out a revenge narrative in which they heroically work to unshackle millions of victims -- victims of English -- by leading them into a multicultural garden of globalized awareness, where English -- the language and its literature – is caste as being just one questionable flower in a garden of competing beauties.
More correct would be to say that, in their view, while English is a flower in the Garden of Languages, it’s not a particularly pretty one due to its unfortunate association with all those DWM (dead white male) authors, fathers, generals, and plantation owners who have for so many centuries been using English to achieve their evil ends. And in the indictment of the authors, high school English teachers are goaded on by the nuanced insights of the anti-English professoriate at the university level to unmask the evil intent of DWM writers like Dickens, Mark Twain, or Marcel Proust.
We all sometimes blink in wonder at our own past experience, and ask: Did that really happen? So one of the most chilling moments in my teaching career was a few autumns ago when all the members of my English department were called together one morning, drawn into a circle, and asked to individually and publicly confess the number of books we taught in our classes that were creations of dead white males (DWM) writing in English. (Dead White Males writing in French, Spanish, or Chinese didn't count.) It grates upon my sense of style and justice to propagate the term (which will one day accurately describe me) by using it as if it were an important technical term in the study of literature. But that was the phrase selected by the interrogators that morning. Round the room we went, and by the end of the meeting, it was clear that we had a "situation." DWM texts were everywhere. Something had to be done.
These were my beloved colleagues with whom I had laughed and chatted for decades and I know them to be a truly remarkable crowd of talented language lovers. All of them, I knew, carried in their brains as prized possessions the sentences and verses from the very category of artist that they, for reasons I can only guess at, were hoping to extirpate or severely diminish in our curriculum. They will say, I suppose, that extirpation was the last thing on their minds. But I know that they are too well-read in the literature and history of oppression from The Crucible and the Army McCarthy hearings to Anne Frank’s Diary and Night (staples of high school English) not to know that once a witch hunt begins, it's likely to end up ugly.
But what about Jamila Lyiscott? She has a valid beef in my opinion. How to accommodate her and the high-water marks of the English language in one fair and fruitful curriculum without further offending her on the one hand or burning books in the library on the other?