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Jewish World Review / July 9, 1998 / 14 Tamuz, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg The language-wars continue

THEY'RE BREAKING OUT ALL OVER, the language wars.

The century just ending was dominated by ideology. You could tell by the world wars, concentration camps and general hatefulness.

Now that the world has grown sick of ideology, the next battleground may be culture and its clearest carrier: language. Once again, what should be man's highest achievement -- ideas, language, art, culture -- is being transformed into a source of contention rather than enlightenment.

There is apparently nothing noble and liberating that our species cannot transform into something base and hateful. Note these items from last week's news of the linguistically weird:

In Algeria, Arabic has been declared the only official language. All government offices, public and private businesses, and political parties will have to use Arabic in all their correspondence and deliberations. Naturally the Berbers, who have their own language, are protesting. As for French, which many Algerians speak, it's out, too. It's a piquant turn of events at a time when the Academie Francaise in Paris is fighting a rear-guard action against the pervasive power of English.

Algeria provides only the latest example of how Arab civilization, the most tolerant and advanced in the world when Europe was still in the Dark Ages, continues to restrict itself.

It's no coincidence that the most vibrant of cultures tend to be the most open, welcome and willing to learn from others. And yet the notion persists that a language or culture can be advanced by suppressing others. Strange. Using the force of law to impose one's own language on others is a confession of weakness, not a sign of strength. Call it the Quebec Syndrome.

Nor is this country safe from language wars. Most of us are caught between the devil of English First (and maybe only) and the deep blue sea of multiculturalism, which would splinter the single, civil culture that holds us together. Each extreme produces its own nutty extravagances:

A postal clerk who speaks Spanish dares answer a question posed to her in that language and winds up in a heap of trouble. In a separate but equal seizure of linguistic correctness, a federal judge in Alabama has told that state to stop giving its exam for driver's licenses only in English. Why? Because that practice has a ``disparate impact'' on immigrants who speak another language. Well, sure, I reckon it would -- like not being able to read STOP in English. Talk about a disparate, not to say desperate, impact.

What we have here are two more examples of the death of common sense in American law and civilization. Why make a federal case out of a simple conversation in Spanish or, for that matter, in French or Italian or Chinese or Tex-Mex?

And instead of forcing Alabama to translate its driver's exam into 120 different languages (and the traffic signs, too?) why not, in all good will and hospitality, offer an English course for immigrants built around how to pass the driver's license exam? Talk about an incentive to learn the language.

If there is a single, one-sentence guide to creating a civic culture that embraces us all, and at the same time respects all our ethnic origins, it might be: Don't be a damfool.

Instead, we're seeing echoes of the kind of hysteria that swept the country at the beginning of the century -- when immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were supposed to represent an unassimilable threat to the American Way of Life. Like the Irish a hundred years before.

The object then and now should be the same: To respect the intimate culture of others while joining with them in one and the same civic culture -- and language. Of course English should be the national language, but making it the official one could reduce it to a provocation.

I think of how as a child I left my Yiddish-speaking home every weekday morning to go to Creswell elementary school in Shreveport, where the lingua franca was American or, to be more exact, Sothron. The infinite varieties of American -- please, let's not confuse it with English -- ranged from the black dialect I heard down on Texas Avenue to the occasional touch of Cajun for lagniappe. Then there was the daily dose of Hebrew after school. And the smattering of Arabic from the Lebanese families with shops on the same block as my father's. It didn't seem confusing so much as inviting, and each language and culture had its place. And everybody was American.

To quote one historian, Peter Salinas: ``The history of the United States has demonstrated that it is the easiest thing in the world to reconcile ethnic diversity -- including the maintenance of distinctive ethnic cultures -- with an unshakeable commitment to American unity. That is what assimilation, American style, is all about.''

How strange that we're now so puzzled and frightened by the old American balance of diversity and unity. The whole process of E Pluribus Unum is simple -- and not so simple. Somehow the common civic culture absorbs the best, or at least most useful or amusing, aspects of all the quite different cultures. Until there comes a time when no Fourth of July concert is complete without a stirring rendition of Tschaikovsky's 1812 Overture, that paean to the Russian national spirit. Go explain. But it feels right. America absorbs, learns, adapts, grows, embraces, and becomes more ... American.

We did it before, and we'll do it again. Just think of the civic culture as a kind of July the Fourth Pops Concert down by the river in Little Rock, or a sing-along with the Boston Pops on the Esplanade. All of us are there making harmony, all beating time to Sousa or Bernstein, all of us firmly committed to jazz, baseball and the Constitution of the United States. And then we all return to our own families, homes, churches, communities. We are both diverse and united, and whole-hearted in both those callings. And we enjoy our differences. Or at least we do when we're not being damfools.


7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Inc.