The Fallacy of American Studies: A Conversation

On xenolinguaphobia and the provincialism of American Studies.

The Fallacy of American Studies: A Conversation

DESPITE — OR PERHAPS because of — the ceaseless battles for and against English-language dominance, the United States has always been multilingual. The earliest text produced in the country — the journals of Juan Ponce de Léon — was written in Spanish. Literature of the United States also includes notable work by authors whose native tongues were Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, German, Norwegian, Russian, Swedish, Vietnamese, and Yiddish, among many other languages. Though English is the world’s lingua franca and the only language for many Americans, it is inaccurate and even harmful to consign every other language to the conceptual ghetto of “foreign languages.” Hawaiian is not exactly foreign to Hawaiians, nor is Navajo to the Navajo. Anglophone chauvinism distorts the nation’s linguistic complexities.

That’s what this conversation, conducted electronically between Ilan Stavans and Steven G. Kellman, is about. Their discussion engages with what, in academia, is falsely called “the American Studies paradigm.” Focusing on matters of race, class, gender, and geography, American Studies tends to ignore the multilingual nature of American cultural production. Though some of the most active scholars of American Studies are based in such far-flung locations as Bahrain, Berlin, Fudan, Groningen, Seoul, and Uppsala, US-based scholars in the field tend to create their own ghetto, writing and teaching in English about English-language phenomena. Stavans and Kellman examine the limitations of this Anglocentrism and the ways in which it might be adjusted to embrace the totality of American experience. Surveying the history of attitudes toward language in the United States, they discuss — and sometimes disagree about — linguistic determinism and lexicographical imperialism. Did the adoption of English by the Founders as the language of the Constitution make inevitable the triumph of capitalism? Was the decision by Donald Trump, in the first weeks of his presidency, to eliminate the White House Spanish-language website a representative example of American xenolinguaphobia? 

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of NPR’s podcast In Contrast. He is the author of Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language (2002), Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion (2005), and How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish (2020), among other books. Steven G. Kellman is professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His books include The Translingual Imagination (2000), Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (2005), and Nimble Tongues: Studies in Literary Translingualism (2020), among other titles.


STEVEN G. KELLMAN: Let’s start with hope, Ilan. The conlang Esperanto (“one who hopes”) was concocted in the 1880s by the Polish ophthalmologist Ludwik Zamenhof out of an aspiration for world peace. In the post-Babel world, we are fragmented among linguistic tribes that literally do not speak the same language. Horrified by pogroms sweeping the multilingual Russian Empire, Zamenhof became convinced that a new, neutral second language that would be easy (at least for Europeans) to learn could bring everyone together and eliminate strife and violence.

It was not linguistic differences, however, that killed more than a million Americans during the Civil War, nor were they much of a factor in the “Troubles” of Northern Ireland. The fact that Serbian and Croatian are virtually indistinguishable did not prevent genocide in the Balkan Peninsula. Esperanto became the explicit target of idealists of a different sort, when Adolf Hitler inveighed against it as a tool for Jewish world domination and Joseph Stalin vilified it as a symptom of anti-Soviet cosmopolitanism. Esperantists, including Zamenhof’s own children, were exterminated in Nazi death camps and confined in Soviet gulags. National loyalty and ideological, if not ethnic, purity were demonstrated through the use of German and Russian, exclusively.

Moreover, the language a person speaks continues to be fought over throughout much of the world, including the United States. Linguistic chauvinism has a long history, even — or especially — in a country that sometimes prides itself on being a haven for huddled, babbling masses yearning to breathe free. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, when German was the most widely spoken language in Pennsylvania, when only 40 percent of Americans were Anglophone, and when various native and African tongues were widely heard throughout the former colonies, the question of an official language was debated. Should it really be English, the language of the despised imperial power that Americans had just successfully gained independence from? French, German, Latin, and Hebrew were considered as alternatives. In the end, though the Constitution was written in English, no language was chosen to be official. And, though 32 states have formally declared English to be their official language, the nation as a whole remains without one.

ILAN STAVANS: In looking up the word “hope” in Merriam-Webster, I found several definitions, prominently as an intransitive verb, “to cherish a desire with anticipation,” and as a noun, “expectation of fulfillment or success.” I want to start in the pages of the dictionary because — although, as you say, linguistic chauvinism is an international malaise, one experienced with agony in the United States — it is also important to consider the degree to which two concepts, language and nationalism, go hand in hand. Max Weinreich, the Yiddish sociolinguist, once said, in a speech delivered on January 5, 1945, that “a language is a dialect with an army and navy.”

Languages, like people, strive for power. Those that amass it in large quantities emerge as conquerors; and those that don’t are, well, hopeless. English is far from being the only language in the United States. Nor is it the exclusive language of American affairs, including American intellectual pursuits. Yet English was embraced as a language of power by the Constitutional Convention in the formative days of the Republic, just as Spanish was endorsed by the Catholic King and Queen Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, Hebrew was endorsed by David Ben-Gurion in the shaping of Israel as a Jewish state in 1947, and so on. Indeed, there is no empire that doesn’t have its own distinct language, no matter how much discomfort that language causes among its citizens.

SGK: The Latin phrase “e pluribus unum” remains inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States. But Americans’ tolerance for many languages and resistance to the imposition of only one have been tested since the infancy of the Republic. As early as 1780, John Adams proposed the creation of an academy along the lines of the Académie Française in Paris to enforce a standardized American English. Striking a blow for linguistic diversity and acknowledging the fact that language cannot be legislated, the Second Continental Congress rejected Adams’s proposal. Yet pressures toward linguistic uniformity have reasserted themselves over the decades — among other places, in Noah Webster’s prescriptive American Dictionary of the English Language and Theodore Roosevelt’s insistence, in 1917, that “[w]e have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, […] not as dwellers in a polyglot boardinghouse.”

IS: You brought up Noah Webster. I take that as a signal to talk a bit about dictionaries. To me, the mere idea of a dictionary is utopian, its impossible goal being to trap between book covers, or now in a single website, the entirety of a language. No wonder dictionaries, as we know them, are by-products of the Enlightenment, even in England where the Enlightenment as such — unlike say France, Germany, etc. — was seen through a different prism. The most ambitious efforts to corral language in its entirety belong to the second half of the 18th century and to the 19th century. Think of Doctor Johnson or of the Brothers Grimms’ Deutsches Wörterbuch.

One of the leading figures in the history of English lexicography, a Renaissance man if there ever was one, is Samuel Johnson, one of my lifelong heroes. In his “Plan of an English Dictionary” (1747), Johnson, after being approached by a group of booksellers to prepare a lexicon, scanned the landscape — contrary to common belief, he wasn’t the first to produce a dictionary of English, but he did produce the best a single person might ever aspire to — and mapped out the route he would take to produce what he thought would be the best lexicon of the English language ever to be published. I quote:

I expect that sometimes the desire of accuracy will urge me to superfluities, and sometimes the fear of prolixity betray me to omissions; that in the extent of such variety, I shall be often bewildered, and, in the mazes of such intricacy, be frequently entangled; that in one part refinement will be subtilized beyond exactness, and evidence dilated in another beyond perspicuity. Yet I do not despair of approbation from those who, knowing the uncertainty of conjecture, the scantiness of knowledge, the fallibility of memory, and the unsteadiness of attention, can compare the causes of errour with the means of avoiding it, and the extent of art with the capacity of man: and whatever be the event of my endeavours, I shall not easily regret an attempt, which has procured me the honour of appearing thus publickly.

In other words, Johnson wanted to be judged not by what he hoped for but by what he accomplished.

Nine years later (he originally thought he could complete his task in three), he included in the first volume the “Preface to the Dictionary” (1755), an invaluable document in which he explains the extent to which his dreams needed to fit into reality. Johnson states:

When first I engaged in this work, I resolved to leave neither words nor things unexamined. […] I saw that one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to persue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chace the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them.

A humbling idea: To chase the sun only to find out it is unreachable. As complete as Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language is, it is irremediably limited, for in the end language is larger than any one user: vast, infinite, and, therefore, unascertainable.

The English language has some of the best, if not the best, dictionaries ever produced in any language, primary among them being the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster. It is an attribute of the language, and the empires it has fostered, to have produced such a feast. Unlike the OED, which was finalized 173 years after Johnson’s project saw the light of day, Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (I’m moving across the Atlantic now) was done, in 1828 — and remains (outside the halls of academia, that is) a commercial project, susceptible to the rules of the market. Webster wasn’t a man of letters, so to speak, and he got a lot of things wrong in his dictionary — which is to say, he was no American Doctor Johnson.

But one thing he had very clear in his mind: as the “Father of American Scholarship and Education,” Webster (who, by the way, was one of the founders of Amherst College) saw English as the conduit for the expression of America’s dreams, including its future imperial quests. While I find a lot to admire in Johnson’s dictionary, which he revised several times, Webster seems to me, as an individual, to be less commendable. In May 1962, Joseph W. Reed Jr. of Wesleyan published an article in American Speech called “Noah Webster’s Debt to Samuel Johnson.” Looking at Johnson and Webster through the letter “L” — 2,024 words and 4,505 meanings out of approximately 70,000 words and perhaps 150,000 meanings given in the 1828 Dictionary — and comparing their definitions, Reed found that Webster, who lambasted his British precursor as error-ridden, nonetheless plagiarized Johnson in 333 entries and made very slight alterations in 987 other entries. In other words, not an auspicious beginning for American lexicography. I offer these numbers because the English language, in and of itself, is a battlefield.

SGK: Samuel Johnson might indeed have produced the best dictionary a single person ever aspired to, but anyone examining the monumental achievement of the Oxford English Dictionary might find an even greater aspiration at work there. Though he certainly had help from others, James Murray’s maniacal dedication to the task of cataloging every word in the language destroyed his health, but he persevered despite his ailments. When he finally died, at age 78 in 1915, he had managed to get as far as the volume “Trink to Turndown.” The final volume was not completed until 1928, but of course, as long as language lives and evolves, the lexicographical project is never complete.

IS: No doubt, Steve. The OED is as emblematic of English, an unquestionable achievement, as the King James version of the Bible, each of them an illustrious staple of the time in which they came to life. But the OED is a corporate venture. Murray was the director of an immense orchestra. Johnson, by contrast, had a few scribes who don’t seem to have contributed anything significant in terms of direction. The OED used “cheap” labor to harvest entries from around the world. It was a British venture through and through, mathematical in its architecture and obsessive in its ambition. I own a large collection of dictionaries. Although all of them (some 400 in total) are objects of admiration, some are quirkier than others and also more quixotic. What fascinates me is why certain civilizations produce better dictionaries and why.

SGK: Nevertheless, thousands of languages have their own dictionaries, and, though dictionaries have often been exploited to inspire nationalism or imperialism, I do not see a necessary connection between lexicography and chauvinism. The Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, a compilation of every Dutch word used since 1500, was, like the OED, created during an extended period, from 1863 to 1998. But its compilers proceeded with a more modest sense of Dutch speakers’ place in the world than the publishers of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language imagined for Anglophones. Collective work on the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon Project, based at Hebrew Union College, proceeds not out of an ambition that the tiny remnant of Aramaic speakers scattered throughout the Middle East conquer the world but as an instrument for understanding ancient religious texts. When you compiled your own glossary of Spanglish, it served as an antidote to nationalist power structures.

IS: Oh, there certainly is a high dose of chauvinism in lexicography, and in philology for that matter. Sebastián de Cobarruvias’s Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española (Treasury of the Castilian or Spanish Language, 1611), published when Cervantes was still working on the second part of Don Quixote, has the imprimatur of the Spanish Inquisition, which explains, to a large degree, why Covarrubias goes against Jews, Arabs, and other apostates, heretics, and disbelievers with cruel insistence. His entries might be poetic in style, but they are vicious in tone.

There are intense feelings of Christian Nationalism in Webster’s work, such as the moralizing, sermon-like definitions in which he extols Christian beliefs, as in the case of “wife” or “religion,” the latter’s definition featuring this line: “includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man’s obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man’s accountableness to God; and also true godliness or piety of life, with the practice of all moral duties.” Webster is also constantly quoting the New Testament and the Founding Fathers.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Webster’s Third (1961), which you referred to. At 14 pounds and 2,700 pages, it remains the most controversial of all English dictionaries in America. When it came out, it created a hoopla, especially regarding the inclusion of the word “ain’t” and the tension between prescriptivism and descriptivism. Its permissiveness, trashed by Dwight Macdonald in The New Yorker, resulted in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other periodicals swearing never to embrace its dictums. These are just two immediate examples. I don’t think lexicographers are part of a plotting cabal intent on indoctrinating us in subliminal ways. Yet, like all of us, they are never free of biases. How could they be? After all, they are products of their times — although, clearly, some more than others.

We all belong to the (in)human race. In his dictionary, Johnson vituperates against the Scots (he defined oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”), which makes his relationship with his friend and biographer James Boswell all the more interesting. You and I know well that chauvinism thrives in the United States, and now, in the Trump era, even more so. One gets the feeling that it comes and goes in cycles, but that isn’t true; it is ubiquitous everywhere one goes, even, of course, among us liberals, who take care of delivering it in a more delicate outfit.

The fastest, easiest place to look for it is to consider the status of foreign languages in America. Robert Louis Stevenson, whose novel Treasure Island (1882) is as exotic as they come, believed that “there are no foreign countries” and that “only the traveler is foreign.” For the United States, it’s the opposite: everybody is a foreigner until they “adapt” to the American ways. And those ways are frighteningly close-minded: Native Americans shouldn’t be foreign, yet they are; all immigrants are a menace. At the level of language, this hatred becomes ideology.

Suffice to mention the campaigns against bilingual education and the noisy debates surrounding English Only and English First. Fifty years after the Texas Revolution, you could hear aberrations like, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.” At times, this paranoia translated into censorship, in spite of the First Amendment.

SGK: Yes. During World War I, the teaching of German was banned in the United States, and, in 1918, the governor of Iowa, William L. Harding, went even further: his “Babel Proclamation” declared that “[o]nly English was legal in public or private schools, in public conversations, on trains, over the telephone, at all meetings, and in all religious services.” The First Amendment, he insisted, “is not a guaranty of the right to use a language other than the language of this country — the English language.” In the spirit of the Texas statement you quoted, the governor even claimed that God responded only to prayers uttered in English.

As he explained to the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce: “[T]hose who insist upon praying in some other language […] are wasting their time for the good Lord up above is now listening for the voice of English.” So, xenolinguaphobia has certainly been a powerful force in American culture, as it has elsewhere in the world. But there are counter-forces, and it is hyperbolic — if not paranoid — to claim that all Americans believe that “all immigrants are a menace.” Emma Lazarus did not think so, and neither do the millions of Americans who oppose the construction of a wall across the Southern border. And not all lexicographers are rabid nationalists.

IS: Turning the Almighty into a defender of monolingualism is obviously a cheap shot. In the first part of chapter 10 of Genesis, the episode of the Tower of Babel, God appears to recant on his effort to make a polyglot world because humans have hubris and will in the end take over the heavens. In other words, it is a precaution the Almighty takes. But God doesn’t speak a human language, at least according to the Talmud, but a divine language. It is humans who have created human languages, not only to communicate but to control their habitat.

Translations of the Bible into English don’t acknowledge, obviously, that the language in which readers are accessing the narrative took shape, depending on how one counts, a millennium after the Crucifixion. For English-language advocates, that’s beside the point. English is all about dominance, locally and globally. They believe English isn’t only the best, most authentic language ever to exist; it is also the last, as if nothing would ever come after it. This view of history is, well, ahistorical.

SGK: Xenolinguaphobia persists in the United States, most overtly in hostility toward the use of Spanish, despite the fact that the United States, with more than 53 million Hispanophones, trails only Mexico as a Spanish-speaking nation. As recently as 2019, La Cantera, a posh resort in San Antonio, Texas, was forced to pay $2.625 million to settle a lawsuit brought by 20 employees over a policy that punished them for speaking Spanish even among themselves, out of earshot of the guests. The name of the resort, La Cantera (i.e., The Quarry), is itself, of course, Spanish.

IS: Spanish is America’s officially unofficial second language. As you say, it is spoken in this land, even in its impure form, by more people than anywhere in the Spanish-speaking world with the exception of Mexico. There are more Latinos in the United States than Spaniards in Spain. Still, it is considered a “kitchen” language, unworthy of its tradition. Latino authors, Spanish-speaking and otherwise, constantly look for strategies to emphasize this distortion or else to circumvent it. We are a diaspora of Latin America in the United States. Our approach to the dominance of English is to subvert it from within because we are also one of this country’s minorities — the largest and fastest growing. I’m also interested in what happens to English in the outreaches of the empire.

English isn’t the world’s most popular native language. Chinese, in its many varieties, as well as Spanish, are ahead. But English is the top nonnative spoken language. Three out of every four speakers of English is a nonnative. I have enjoyed a book that Mark Twain found equally amusing: English As She Is Spoke (1884), by Pedro Carolino, who at times is called by another name, José da Fonseca. It is a Portuguese-English conversational guide, prepared by an absolutely inefficient, inadvertently creative mind whose knowledge of the language is as abundant as water in the desert. There are lines like “the storm is go over” and “the winter no pleases to me.” The guide includes “dialogues,” designed to teach nonnatives how to use English in specific situations. This is part of “Dialogue 20,” subtitled “For to visit a sick”:

How have you passed the night?
Very bad. I have nots sleeped; I had the fever during all night. I fell some pain every where body.
Live me see your tongue. Have you pain to the heart?
Yes, sir, some times.
Are you altered?
Yes, I have thirsty often.

In a commendation often used as a preface to the book, Twain states:

In this world of uncertainties, there is, at any rate, one thing which may be pretty confidently set down as a certainty: and that is, that this celebrated little phrase-book will never die while the English language lasts. Its delicious unconscious ridiculousness, and its enchanting naïveté, are as supreme and unapproachable, in their way, as are Shakespeare’s sublimities.

Apparently, Carolino didn’t know a word of English. He used a Portuguese-French dictionary and then a French-English lexicon to compile his manual. Now that’s resourcefulness! To me, English As She Is Spoke is about the unequivocal force behind global capitalism and its commanding tool, the English language. At first sight, Carolina’s guide seems clumpy, but in its pages there are higher, more urgent truths, particularly with regard to English: mistranslation is a sine qua non of modernity; and America’s imposition of cultural patterns gives place to derivatives — let’s call them “impostor versions” — that are nothing less than omnipresent. The empire’s center prides itself on being authentic while second-rate spinoffs thrive in the periphery.

SGK: I’m not sure about an essential connection between English and capitalism. German was certainly an important tool in the development of modern capitalism, as illustrated by Das Kapital. If English and capitalism are connected, it is a matter of contingencies, not necessities. I suspect that any European language might have been harnessed to advance the interests of multinational corporations based in the United States. Perhaps if Hebrew, which lacks a verb meaning “to have” (to declare that “I have a book,” a Hebrew speaker says: “Yesh li sefer,” or “To me there is a book,” an expression devoid of possessiveness), had become the dominant language of this country, our economic and social systems might have been less acquisitive and predatory.

IS: I disagree. The chauvinism we are talking about is, in part, a desire to prove to people in the rest of the world that, no matter how much they try to communicate in English, they will never be part of the “inner club” made by natives. If this sounds Trumpian, it surely is: we are great, the rationale suggests, and everyone else isn’t.

SGK: Nevertheless, there is nothing intrinsic to the English language that makes it the appropriate medium for an abusive Trump tweet. Thomas Merton, who renounced worldly appetites in favor of a monastic life, also wrote in English. However, it is a truism in Hollywood that American audiences do not go to the movies in order to read, which is why foreign-language features almost always fare better at the box office when remade, sans subtitles, in English. Coline Serreau’s Trois hommes et un couffin qualified as a foreign hit in the American market when it grossed $2,052,466 in 1985, but Leonard Nimoy’s 1987 remake, Three Men and a Baby, took in $167,780,960 domestically. Other countries that dub rather than subtitle foreign-language films enforce an even greater provincialism. In Naples, where any trace of the English language is expunged from the moviegoing experience, audiences for Star Wars (1977) are not permitted access even to the voices of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher.

IS: I also find it intriguing that we teach English as “a second language” to immigrants but not as a foreign language. Anyway, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences no longer describes that category as “foreign films,” so is it a happy coincidence that Parasite won both for “best international picture” and “best picture”? What’s the difference when the majority of American movies are financed by transnational corporations? Will there come a time when these two categories will merge into one? Instead of Parasite, Trump wanted Gone with the Wind and, with it, a return to the Old South. In any case, I believe it is important to contemplate how linguistic difference fits into the study of race, gender, and class. One example: The embrace, by American academics, of the term “Latinx.” I have written about this in The New York Times. As I travel through Latin America, I have yet to hear it on the street, in the classroom, in religious settings or political forums. The term surely comes from a genuine desire to be sensitive to linguistic domination.

Yet Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and other Romance languages, derived from Latin, cannot avoid using gendered pronouns. The sun is masculine whereas the moon is feminine; a house is feminine but a home is masculine. That’s how the world is built in linguistic terms. In my view, this is an example of English-language speakers spreading the gospel of liberalism through a supposedly non-gendered approach. Again, the effort is genuine, but it comes across as near-sighted and manipulative, not to say imperial. In a recent edited volume, The Oxford Handbook of Latino Studies (2020), I opted for not asking the three dozen contributors to find a common approach. The result is a symphony of well-wishing discordance. I like it, though. To me, language isn’t about homogeneity but about difference.

SGK: When you proclaim that “the sun is masculine whereas the moon is feminine,” are you not succumbing to the linguistic absolutism you have been attacking? That gender assignment is true in Spanish and other Romance languages, but it is not true, for example, in German, where die Sonne is feminine, or in Hebrew, where shemesh is also feminine. Multilingualism teaches us that any one language immures us within one particular prison house. Since living languages evolve, is it not possible that the hundreds of teachers in France who signed a proclamation opposing the hoary rule that the masculine noun always prevails over the feminine noun (French speakers are taught to say, “L’homme et les femmes sont américains,” not, “L’homme et les femmes sont américaines”) will ultimately prevail?

Of course, language is a marker not only of nationality and gender but also of many other factors we use to differentiate among human beings. George Bernard Shaw’s Henry Higgins could locate the precise birthplace of a speaker by listening to a few sentences, and one need not be a sociolinguist to differentiate between an Alabama drawl and a Mainer’s Yankee dialect. And if men are indeed from Mars and women from Venus, they betray their origins in separate speech patterns. In his famous study of social stratification in language, William Labov discovered that New Yorkers pronounce “fourth floor” differently when he studied them at the posh Saks Fifth Avenue, middle-class Macy’s, or working-class S. Klein department stores. The reality of Ebonics is that African Americans differ from others in vocabulary, phonology, syntax, and other linguistic features.

IS: Labov was on target: when we talk about the dominance of English, we are really describing the apparent cohesiveness of the various Englishes that are available.

SGK: Such differences can be exploited to assert dominance and create injustice.

IS: Of course they can. They often are. But they also bring people together. This discussion makes me think of the role social media has today. Helpful? No doubt, since it builds countless layers of connectivity, opening us up to previously unreachable stimulation. Pernicious, too? No doubt, since we are lonelier than ever, entrapped in our little bubbles. And, equally worrisome, hatred nowadays arguably travels further and faster than ever before.

There’s much talk nowadays about restricting social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others, de facto injecting them with a modicum of censorship in order to make their assets more palatable. The English language is also a social medium, one that is far more versatile than any of the ones I’ve listed. While its global, hegemonic reach is a threat to minority cultures and languages, it also brings those cultures and languages — and a zillion other things — to the attention of people. Like the Greek god Janus, it has two faces; and, metaphorically, it is also about beginnings and ends, and about transitions. I’m all in favor of pluralism as well as relativism; however, I also see strong benefits to the hope brought about by universalism — a legacy, let it be remembered of the Enlightenment.

SGK: Speakers of supposedly “mongrel” jargons such as Yiddish and Spanglish have been scorned by those who consider their own languages — which do possess armies and navies — somehow “purer.” Under the Russification policy of the Stalinist Soviet Union, the teaching of Chechen, Ingush, Udmurt, and other languages could lead to a stint in a gulag, and American Indian children sent to compulsory government schools were punished if caught using their “inferior” native tongues.

An extreme example of language as an instrument of oppression might be the use of shibboleths to identify and eliminate an enemy, as when, on the orders of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, suspected Haitian immigrants were told to pronounce the Spanish word “perejil.” The Haitian Francophones would offer a guttural “r,” unlike the trilled “r” of Spanish-speaking Dominicans. In the resulting Parsley Massacre, thousands of “mispronouncing” Haitians were put to death. If we go back to Esperanto, however, we find that its lesson is that reducing all linguistic difference does not necessarily lead to equality and harmony. If we all spoke the same language in the same dialect, with the same vocabulary and intonations, human beings would surely still find some reasons and means to oppress one another. The solution is not to eliminate linguistic diversity, but to respect it. Monotony does not create equality but banality.

On the question of whether American Studies might be conceived in languages other than English, we might start by recognizing the provinciality of the field if it is isolated from a study of the rest of the world. The rest of the world recognizes the pitfalls of provincialism, as evidenced by the existence of important centers for the study of American culture in Bahrain, Beijing, Berlin, and Brussels — to name only a few institutions beginning with B. Those pursuing American Studies in the United States might benefit from an awareness of the perspectives of those centers located in the peripheries.

In addition, an analysis of the concept of Manifest Destiny would be enriched by recognizing that similar impulses have helped shape Australia, Brazil, South Africa, and other nations. The United States is not the only “nation of immigrants,” and the histories of Argentina, Canada, and Israel might aid in an understanding of Ellis Island. American theater must be studied alongside Shakespeare, as well as Sophocles, Calderón, Molière, Ibsen, Chekhov, and Brecht. American Studies remains noxiously insular if it neglects the wealth of literature written in the United States in languages other than English. An educated American ought to be acquainted with the prolific Hawaiian compositions of Queen Lili’uokalani; the slave narrative written by Omar Ibn Said in Arabic; the novel Dafydd Morgan, written by R. R. Williams of Michigan in Welsh; as well as some of the rest of the vast library created in this country in Spanish, Yiddish, German, Chinese, Russian, Navajo, and other languages.

IS: I’m less optimistic, even though I’ve actively worked in several of the endeavors you just mentioned. I like your response about provinciality. All provinciality is indeed nefarious. It is, to me, the most pernicious virus around today, in this age of super-viruses. Again, looking at Merriam-Webster, the first definition, unexpectedly, is “the superior of a province of a Roman Catholic religious order.” Only later does the reader come across statements like “limited in outlook” and “a person lacking urban polish or refinement.”

Epistemologically, this, clearly, is about the distinction between the city and the countryside. Dictionaries are written by urbane people for whom the rural landscape is awkward, atavistic, and, therefore, unwelcome. (I have yet to find a lexicographic project of national importance that sprung, and found life, in the so-called provinces.) Of course, just as the word “America” can be uttered in any tongue, so can anything related to it. By this I mean that one can engage in American Studies in any language one pleases, as is clear from the infinite number of academic papers on the topic published all over the world.

Yet, whether we want it or not, American Studies as a discipline, in my opinion, is also, at its core, English-language studies produced under the banner of cosmopolitanism — which, by the way, means “dweller of the cosmos.” Which cosmos are we talking about? One in which people communicate through a lingua franca, the one you and I are employing right now.

SGK: English was not always the world’s dominant language, and it is not likely to remain so forever. In 1872, when French was still the dominant language in diplomacy and German in philosophy and science, Frederick Douglass noted: “Five generations ago, Britain was ashamed to write books in her own tongue. Now her language is spoken in all corners of the globe.” Sic transit gloria mundi, as they say in a language that, like Greek, Persian, and Sumerian, once monopolized discourse. What can deliver us from cultural hubris and linguistic oppression is a recognition of the relativity of speech systems and our ability to discuss the topic in a common language, whatever that happens to be.


Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the author, most recently, of The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (Pitt).

Steven G, Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the author of The Translingual Imagination (2000) and Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (2005).

LARB Contributors

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of the NEPR podcast In Contrast. He has written Quixote: The Novel and the World (2015), Oy, Caramba!: An Anthology of Jewish Stories from Latin America (2016), Borges, the Jew (2017), and The Wall (2018).  He has recently written The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (Pittsburgh), and his book-long poem “The Wall” (also Pittsburgh) won the 2019 Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry.

Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth and The Translingual Imagination.


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