Wars on Language and the Language of Wars

The following paragraphs open a recent post on Dennis Baron’s site The Web of Language:

“2014 marks the centennial of World War I, time to take a closer look at one of its offshoots, America’s little-known War on Language.

“In April, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. In addition to sending troops to fight in Europe, Americans waged war on the language of the enemy at home. German was the second most commonly-spoken language in America, and banning it seemed the way to stop German spies cold. Plus, immigrants had always been encouraged to switch from their mother tongue to English to signal their assimilation and their acceptance of American values. Now speaking English became a badge of patriotism as well, a way to prove that you were not a spy.

“The war on language was fought on two fronts, one legal, the other, in the schools. Its impact was immediate and long-lasting. German was the target, but the other ‘foreign’ tongues suffered collateral damage. Immigrant languages in America went into decline, and there was a precipitous drop in the study of foreign languages in US schools as well.”

Baron’s full article can be found at: http://illinois.edu/blog/view/25.

In West Central Ohio, where I have lived for the last quarter century, more than half of the residents still claim full German ancestry, and yet there are relatively few remaining indications of that ancestry. The two World Wars largely ended the previously widespread use of the German language in the churches and the schools. Reflecting the national trends that Baron delineates, the emphasis in all things cultural shifted abruptly to assimilation, and that assimilation was reflected in some obvious ways linguistically. The township in which I live was once called German Township but, since 1942, been called American Township instead. It was a relatively easy change to make because before the suburban sprawl that began in the immediate postwar decades, American Township was largely farmland on the outskirts of the nearest sizable city of Lima. In instances in which the place names were more entrenched, the pronunciation shifted. For instance, a village in the adjacent county is still named New Bremen, but the pronunciation of the first “e” in Bremen shifted from a long “a” to a long “e”: that is, from the “a” sound in “ate” or “eight” to the “e” sound in “eat” and “street.”

Interestingly, the same thing happened to another village’s name in response to the Red Scares in the late 1910s and early 1920s and again in the late 1940s and late 1950s. The village’s name is Russia, but it is pronounced without the final “a,” as if it rhymes with “sushi.”

We have seen some of this cultural and linguistic backlash against American Muslims and others during the War on Terror. But the relatively small size of the Arab-American population, compared to that of the German-American population during both of the World Wars, has in itself limited the cultural backlash. Another factor has, of course, been our greater sensitivity to the rights of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, which at least in part has resulted from our sense of national shame over the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

It may be telling that the major linguistic issue related to this period marked by the extended conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq has been whether “french fries” should be called, instead, “freedom fries”—though I doubt that many of us can any longer explain the specific circumstances under which there was such an intense backlash against all things French. In fact, one of the problems with this linguistic assault on all things French may have been that the word “French” in the “phrase “french fries” is very seldom capitalized any more. So this association with France has already become much eroded. I recall a very funny John Leo column written in response to the national, misplaced, and ultimately ridiculous outcry over a statement by a White civil servant in Washington, D.C., in which he correctly used of the word “niggardly,” which, of course, has nothing to do with the “N” word. (Never mind that the civil servant had a long history as a civil rights activist; he still lost his job.) In that column, Leo provided a long list of commonplace words and phrases that might be completely misconstrued as racist—including “Spic and Span” which, subsequently and very ironically, actually became a focus of protests in a different context.

Indeed, if one wants to know where our current cultural wars are being fought, there is much linguistic evidence that the battlefields are much closer to home than Afghanistan or Iraq. Consider the opening paragraph of an article written by Kyle Wagner in response to a hyper-charged response of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman to a reporter’s innocuous question:

“The word “thug” has been used so many times by the same sort of people about the same sort of thing that it’s no longer even accurate to call it code—it’s really more of a shorthand. It means a black guy who makes white folks a little more uncomfortable than they prefer. On Sunday night, Richard Sherman made a lot of people uncomfortable. Then on Monday, people said thug on TV more often than on any other day in the past three years” [http://regressing.deadspin.com/the-word-thug-was-uttered-625-times-on-tv-yesterday-1506098319].

The same cultural coding or shorthand has been evident in the uses of the word “thug” in the Far Right media coverage of the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

Moreover, if one were to gauge military threats by the declarations by politicians and others about the pernicious impact of other languages on our national culture, one would think that we have been engaged in extended wars with Spanish-speaking nations, rather than in nations where the populations speak Arabic or various Turkic languages.


2 thoughts on “Wars on Language and the Language of Wars

  1. Pingback: The Language and the Marketing of “Intelligence” | The Academe Blog

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