- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004

As the new year began, the final round of “World Idol” on TV was down to ten contestants — from Belgium, Germany, Norway, Denmark, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, and the “Pan Arab States” (which seemed to consist of the emirates).

Each finalist country was contacted to report its own particular vote, then the winning singer got to perform his number once more. Improbably, a gap-toothed, rather pudgy and extremely fair Norwegian won. The proceedings in their entirety were conducted (and sung) in English.

The only diction hard to understand was that of the two North-of-England-soccer-hooligan types who emceed. English is the de facto lingua franca of the world, yet it is considered to be under threat in its mightiest stronghold, the United States.

According to the activist group U.S. English, founded in 1983 by the late S.I. Hayakawa, 328 other languages now compete against English within our nation. Therefore, a measure to declare English the official national language urgently requires passage.

Of these 328 tongues, of course, not all threaten English equally. The prime-threat prize goes to Spanish, of course, whose partisans would be vastly reinforced by the amnesty (and its inevitable sequels) now proposed by the Bush administration.

Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin American and Latino Cultures at Amherst who grew up speaking Yiddish in his native Mexico City, has just published “Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language.” Mr. Stavans is enthused by the prospect of American English being transformed into a Spanish-based dialect. His views are the linguistic equivalent of Richard Rodriguez’s provocative 2002 book “Brown: The Last Discovery of America,” which envisions the ultimate “browning” of the American population.

Let’s examine the balance of forces when it comes to language, at least.

The language of the Roman Empire obliterated most Italic, Gallic and Iberian tongues and drove Celtic-speaking remnants to the wild fringes and isles of Europe. The Germanic tongues were never so affected, and the Romans had abandoned their occupation of Britannia before waves of Anglo-Saxon migration brought the roots of English to that island’s shores.

English is German that long ago jettisoned most of German’s inflections such as gender, noun-adjective agreement, noun-verb agreement, verb formation and conjugation, and case. It is marvelously versatile, practical, flexible, instrumental and direct, free of the structural tics that hobble other tongues.

The only snakes in the English garden are its orthography (spelling), which like some grand Museum of Archaic Phonology has preserved extinct pronunciations — for instance, the notorious “thought,” “though,” “tough” and “through” — and its lack of more than two or three good rhymes for “love.”

Via its shotgun wedding with Norman French in 1066, English acquired a double vocabulary of Latin-derived words to superimpose (pile) upon its already rich profusion (glut) of Saxon roots and Celtic holdovers. Thus there are precious few Spanish words we have not already obtained courtesy of the French.

The Normans were determined conquerors, great in number and settled in for the long haul of ruling and dispossessing the Anglo-Saxons. For many a king’s reign, to know or speak or write English was quite out of fashion; and many an English king knew scarcely a word of his people’s tongue.

If William the Conqueror could not prise English off its German bedrock, is the peaceful peasantry of Latin America likely to?

After nearly 1,000 years of Norman domination, not only is the structure of English still Germanic, but the core vocabulary of the average English-speaker, the famous “800 words” one uses all the time, is virtually 100 percent Anglo-Saxon, including the famous “pithy expletives.” Moreover, as J.R.R. Tolkien brilliantly demonstrated in his great neo-mythology “The Lord of the Rings,” very fine literature indeed may still be written using an average of fewer than one Latin-derived word per page.

There is such a thing as Spanglish, however. It consists primarily of English words for modern things, ideas and activities hung on a sagging Spanish grammatical framework. Typical Spanglish formulations are “Compre un par de jeans en la mall, estan bien cool.” and “Honey, podrias startear el carro, please?”

As Peruvian-born Yolanda Rivas has written, computers themselves are “English-speaking machines,” and Spanglish (like Franglais) is a hasty improvisation using English terms that, due to what Miss Rivas calls “the chaos of language impotence,” simply lack Spanish (or French) equivalents.

The truth is, that’s how high-school dropouts confined to ethnic ghettos talk. Nobody else is going to find himself talking like this. Spanglish, like Ebonics, will tend to remain what it already is, a dialect of people who are not educated enough to master English.

One of the oddest aspects of the debate, too, is that Spanish itself is the tongue of a colonialism and imperialism, of a Conquista far more brutal than anything the English-speaking nations, and even Rome herself, visited upon their own subject peoples.

The truth also is that the Spanish language is in danger of succumbing to English worldwide, as the Real Academia Espanola, established in 1713 to “fijar las voces y vocablos de la lengue Castellana en su mayor propiedad, elegancia y pureza,” is well aware.

Like its French counterpart, the Academia lives in constant fear of Anglo encroachment on the mother tongue. And it realizes Spanglish enthusiasts like Mr. Stavans are more likely to be pushing the extinction of “puro” Spanish than the eventual mutation of English.

Marian Kester Coombs is a freelance writer.

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