If English Was Good Enough for Jesus

By Voss, Katrina | The Humanist, July-August 2009 | Go to article overview

If English Was Good Enough for Jesus


Voss, Katrina, The Humanist


LISTENING TO TALK RADIO is like picking a scab. It's hard to stop. And why stop? Despite its reputation for offering little more than anonymous plebeian banter, there is often some wisdom to be gleaned from hosts and callers alike, q-here are thoughtful, intelligent people saying thoughtful, intelligent things, q-here are also plenty of morons saying thoughtless, unintelligent things.

In the latter category, the latest phrase to permeate talk radio is "Tower of Babel" For Michael Savage and Sean Hannity callers, bilingual signage, schools, and 1040 forms mark the beginning of our next cataclysmic fall. These concerned citizens seem to believe that just as homosexual marriage threatens heterosexual marriage, other languages threaten English. (I agree that English is clearly under siege, but the threat is not from other languages, rather, it's from English speakers themselves incorrectly conjugating verbs and confusing nominative and accusative pronouns.)

It may be no accident that "Tower of Babel," the tidy, three-word phrase used to describe the "threat" has biblical origins. According to traditional interpretation, the construction of the tower was an act of hubris by men who wanted to leave their mark on the earth. "[N]ow nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do," God says in Genesis 11:6-7. "Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." So if the multitude of languages came about as God's punishment, we certainly can't blame today's pious Christians for our inability to understand each other.

Of course, every pious Christian who laments this sad state of affairs seems to regard his own language as God's preference. In fact, echoes of other-language disdain are not confined to the United States. When I lived in Spain, I encountered a curious turn of phrase, hablar en cristiano ("to speak in Christian"), an expression that in modern times simply means, "to speak clearly." While now a quaint, and generally secular expression, the phrase finds its origins in medieval Spanish religious intolerance toward the Jews and Moors.

Likewise, under Francisco Franco's program of National Catholicism, Spain wrote language censorship into law in 1941. While the rest of Europe subtitled foreign films, all audiovisual products entering Spain were dubbed over in Castilian Spanish lest a French-, German-, or English-speaking Spanish moviegoer understand risque--or political-dialogue. A rewritten, more wholesome dialogue could then easily replace any objectionable exchanges between the characters. (Dubbing, as a preference to subtitling, remains to this day, although the naughty dialogue is no longer rewritten but rather embraced.)

As it was in medieval and Franco's Spain, and as it is in the present-day United States, otherness is scary, the known trumps the unknown and the familiar, the mysterious--whether the strange thing in question is a religious icon or a foreign phoneme. Clearly, language, culture, and religion are intimately yoked. Religious tolerance sounds like a pie in the sky when restaurant owners with immigrant clientele implement "English-only ordering policies" or mayors encourage boycotts of fast-food chains that display Spanish-language billboards. It's bad enough that private companies are discouraged from using tactics to increase their customer base; states across the country have invoked various "English-only" laws and bills are always being reintroduced in the U.S. Congress to make English the official national language. Even the most enlightened among us nod respectfully as the talking heads describe Islam as a religion of peace, but can't quite get past Islam's sacred language sounding like random glottal noise. …

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