New anthology explores the rich diversity of American English
In his new anthology, “The People’s Tongue: Americans and the English Language,” editor Ilan Stavans has collected perspectives from 74 writers throughout American history to create what he calls both a “thank you” and a “love letter” to the rich diversity of his adopted language. The result is a lively and enlightening book that reveals American English to be as controversial, contested, and complicated as the nation it serves.
“My goal was to create something that would be read widely by people of all ages and interests, not just a very small group of specialists,” says Stavans, a polyglot who grew up in Mexico speaking both Spanish and Yiddish. To achieve this, he not only provides essays that directly address the inner workings of the language, he also includes cultural touchstones to demonstrate its use and evolution over time: an Abbott and Costello routine, banter from “I Love Lucy,” rap lyrics from Kendrick Lamar and tweets from Donald Trump.
“I wanted to showcase the symphonic aspects of American English,” says Stavans, “and demonstrate how the language has been incredibly elastic and astonishingly creative.”
As the book reveals, the story of American English is one of constant change. In colonial America, it was an amorphous thing, without much consensus on spelling or grammar. Anne Winthrop’s letter to her husband, written just before the pair immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, epitomizes the lack of standardization: “Those sweete and comfortable wordes… are wonte to flowe most aboundantlye from youre lounge hart.”
Nineteenth century writers like Walt Whitman and Alexis de Toqueville hailed its flexibility and openness, which they felt made it the ideal language for a budding democracy. “Language, be it remember’d, is not an abstract construction of the learn’d, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground,” wrote Whitman.
In the 20th century, however, the country’s freewheeling origins were a faint memory, and an influx of immigrants was met with a reactionary response aimed at codifying what constituted “proper” English. “We have room but for one language here,” wrote President Theodore Roosevelt, “and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.”
Nevertheless, as the newcomers assimilated, they brought with them words and sayings from their native tongues that, today, seem as American as apple pie. And by the end of the century, native dialects, such as African American Vernacular English and Spanglish, began to be seen not as corruptions but rather as innovations, largely thanks to their increasing visibility in pop culture.
Still, the debates rage on. Those who hold fast to the idea of a “proper” English bemoan the imprecision of “descriptive” linguistics, and see foreign influences and new slang as a threat to clarity, cohesion and—frankly—cultural hegemony. Dwight MacDonald’s no-holds-barred philippic against Dr. Philip Gove and Webster’s Third Dictionary, which was a landmark in linguistic open-mindedness, is a gripping, if retrograde read, full of fear and fury.
On the other hand, some members of marginalized or minority communities worry about the loss of their identity, traditions and sense of community, or the potential for homogenization that may come with assimilation. Essays from Amy Tan, Chang-Rae Lee, and Chicana writer Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa ask readers to consider what cultural acceptance really looks like and whether there is room for more than one kind of English in America.
“My objective was to represent as accurately as possible the tension that exists within the English language,” says Stavans. “I didn’t want this to be a view from only one ideological side at the expense of the other. My duty was not to take sides, but to show that this cacophony is what makes the language so powerful.”
What the essays in “The People’s Tongue” show is that we’re foolish to think we can control what English is or will become. It’s a living creature that thrives on novelty and gobbles up everything in its path. It learns from our mistakes and encourages us to play with it. “The main force of English is improvisation,” says Stavans. “How we mess it up is what keeps the language alive.”
English is not, and never has been, a closed-off thing. Its destiny is not to be frozen in amber or ruthlessly policed; it wants to be free. Most importantly, it now belongs not just to those who were born to it, but to the world: globally, there are now significantly more non-native English speakers than native ones. In the end, the final words on English are perhaps, ironically, ones we’re best familiar with from Latin: E pluribus unum.