Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Reflections on Speaking “American”

Sarah Palin’s civic lesson on speaking “American” is as ironic as it is oafish.

Oafish because the predominant language of America is English.

Sarah PalinIronic because English is the world language most notable for its inclusiveness.

English has flourished because of its adaptability and embrace of words from other languages and cultures. A map of English words and their original countries would look pretty much like a map of the world.

The global roots of English are hardly a secret. It evolved from Anglo-Saxon, with significant influences by Celts, Vikings, Romans and the Viking descendants we call Normans. The first vestiges of Old English came from the pen of Geoffrey Chaucer, who spoke French.

William Shakespeare, indisputably the best known and most masterly writer of the English language, is known for coining hundreds of phrases and unique words. None of them were in American.

Notwithstanding the bard, English owes a debt to African languages for such “American” words as gumbo, banjo and zombie.

We have serious problems with Iran, but have incorporated many Persian words into our language – balcony, calendar, musk, julep and gizzard.

The Chinese chipped in with catsup, soy and tea. The Japanese contributed tycoon, sudoku and teriyaki.

Even Native Americans have “borrowed” – or been bequeathed – names from “foreign” languages – Apaches (Spanish), Iroquois (French) and Cherokee (Choctaw).

Palin’s reference may have been aimed at speakers of Spanish, which has been a prolific contributor to our lexicon and our diet – avocado, banana, quinoa, burrito, Tequila and daiquiris. We have plazas, politicos, renegades and rodeos. We predict our weather on the West Coat using Spanish – El Niños or La Niñas. An iconic American – and a Republican – famously says, “Hasta la vista.”

The French influence on our language can be seen on virtually every “menu”  and in every “restaurant” in America. It’s worth noting that “liberty” and “faith” have French derivations.

If Jerry Seinfeld would have made a joke about all Americans speaking American, he would have gotten a big laugh. Unfortunately, Palin wasn’t making a joke. She was admonishing a fellow Republican who is running for President of the United States.

Palin is well known for over-using the phrase American exceptionalism. Indeed, America comes off as exceptional – exceptionally smug and ignorant – by demanding everyone speak its not-quite-motherly tongue.

augustusShe would have been smart to stick with her code word “maverick.” As best as anyone can tell, its origin is Samuel Maverick, a Texas lawyer, politicians, land baron and singer who lived in the mid 19th century and symbolized off-the-rails individualism. Regrettably, his middle name was Augustus, the title given to Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar and a Roman emperor.

Peter Laufer, a professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, poked at Palin in a weekend op-ed in The Oregonian. He closed his piece with this:

“¡Hola, Sarah Palin! What chutzpah you showed when you joined the brouhaha about language, responding to that bon vivant Donald Trump’s suggestion that Jeb Bush stop speaking Spanish with your call that we gringos should all “speak American.” It was a typical bon mot on your part, reminiscent of your “how’s that hope-changey stuff working out?” remark. But this time you caught the Zeitgeist. I say basta to the dilettante English-only crowd, too, as I wander this great country from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, to New Braunfels, Texas, from Cairo, Illinois, to my own San Francisco. We’ve been speaking, writing and reading American here in these United States since the Pennsylvanischer Staatsbote editor thought carpe diem and his became the first newspaper to publish the Declaration of Independence on the fifth of July, 1776 – in German. Ciao!”

Enough said.


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