English in Its Social Contexts: Essays in Historical Sociolinguistics

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

They ensure a core of sameness in the many "Englishes." Centripetal forces plead for linguistic unity; they level linguistic differences, yet they enforce social stratification and hierarchies.

The champions of linguistic unity tell an appealing tale. They seem to have the solution to misunderstanding, division and dissent among people. They seem to know a route back to a simpler time, a time once upon a time when "America" was homogeneous, cohesive, and monolingual. In truth, their project is scary. In real time centripetal forces create unity through exclusion, and, sadly, in the last decade of the twentieth century we are deep in the throes of a centripetal movement.

To counteract this movement, we would do well to reconceive the American experiment and abandon the grotesque "melting pot" metaphor. We would also do well to abandon an image of ourselves as monoglots and an image of our language as an edifice.

Americans need not fear either the idea of diversity or the people who bring it to their communities. The truth is that immigrants do learn English, but they also change English and themselves in learning and using it. "They" become and change "us." Traditionally, immigrants want to assimilate--to join or create a national unity--and they also want to preserve their ethnicity. Rather than try to still this push/pull, we would be wise to understand and even "foster this dialectic of desires" ( Bizzell, 1989). Perhaps then we could hear polyphony in the voices of the many.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author wishes to thank Tom Barrett, Patricia Bizzell, Marilyn Cooper, Tom Fox, and Sharon Jones for their help with the ideas in and drafts of this article. Also, the author would like to express her appreciation to Joshua Fishman for his longstanding interest in language diversity in the United States.


NOTES
1.
This is not an inclusive survey, however, and the reader may find certain gaps to be odd. For example, the field of sociolinguistics is heavily indebted to William Labov's early work with the social stratification of /r/ in New York City. This study broke new methodological ground, yet the details of Labov's procedures are essentially ignored here because they are not especially pertinent to the central themes of this essay.
2.
This departure from and return to ethnicity happened in more or less three generations. In other words, the three-generational curve is an average.
3.
Obviously, there are many individual Mexicans who acquired English rapidly, and there are many individual Cubans or Puerto Ricans who have maintained their Spanish. But the point is twofold: first, that these communities did not have structural opportunities for language acquisition, only random and individual ones; second, whether the majority of the Mexicans speak English or not, they are still perceived by Anglo society as a centrifugal, diversifying pressure on English. On the other hand, the Puerto Ricans,

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