English in Its Social Contexts: Essays in Historical Sociolinguistics

By Tim William MacHan; Charles T. Scott | Go to book overview

7
A Polyphony of Voices: The Dialectics of Linguistic Diversity and Unity in the Twentieth-Century United States

JUDITH RODBY

Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists
and contenders.

WALT WHITMAN, "Song of Myself"

In the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century, Americans are increasingly multilingual, but no one, it seems, hears sweet polyphony in this multitude of voices. No one is content with the linguistic state of affairs. In the national media, we find tales of a beleaguered "standard" English battling to precserve its status and power as the "majority" language. In this drama, "minority" languages and nonstandard dialects of English threaten to repeat the tragedy of Babel. English needs to be protected, or so the story goes.

From the "other" perspective, however, English is a megalomaniacal bully who recognizes no voice but his own. English is a kind of inverse Robin Hood, stealing mother tongues from the poor so that only the rich can use them in the confines of the foreign language class.

Ideologues of nationalism pressure for linguistic unity, while advocates of cultural pluralism and champions of ethnicity extol the value of linguistic diversity. Former President Reagan implies that bilingualism is un-American, while "pluralism and diversity" are currently badges of honor in the American academy (quoted in Hakuta, 1986:207). Both the majority and the minority are awhirl with these pressures. From the English monolingual to the Lao trilingual, all are affected; the forms and functions of each language, whether English, Spanish, or Hmong, are continuously reshaping themselves, as are the social relations these languages mediate. To describe the linguistic milieu in the United States in the

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