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E Pluribus Unum: Ilan Stavans on American English
"It's a language that is incredibly versatile and incredibly volatile too."
Ilan Stavans is a true polymath: writer, editor, publisher, professor, entrepreneur, performer and interviewer. But linking it all is a profound love of language and literature. The author of over thirty books, in his new anthology, The People’s Tongue: Americans and the English Language, Stavans turns his prodigious intellect and erudition to the evolution of American English, with contributions from everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Sojourner Truth to Donald J. Trump, and explores how it has been shaped and buffeted by the trends in our own nation’s history and how it ultimately serves to bring us together. In this wide-ranging and fascinating interview, Stavans talks about why the US has no official arbiter of language, the bizarre controversy around the term “Latinx,” how the exclamation point has become ubiquitous, and why William Shakespeare coined some two thousand words.
Octavian Report: Why did you decide to write this book now?
Ilan Stavans: This book is timed in three ways. One is that it is the 10th anniversary of Restless Books, my publishing company, and I wanted to have one book that would crown the first decade and would be a statement of the mission we have for immigrant voices, the passion for literature that we have, and the place that we are trying to carve here in the United States.
The second is that I feel for my own journey as an immigrant that this country and this language both have been incredibly generous to me. I couldn't have imagined a comfort in a language that I hardly could really speak when I came here 30 years ago. And I wanted to do a love letter to both the nation and to this astonishing language that feels like home to me, and as such make a statement that we immigrants, coming from afar, afar geographically and afar linguistically, we can become members of the club that is the speakers, even though we will always be outsiders in one way or another.
And the third and last point is that I feel that this country, with the arrival in 2016 of Donald Trump, to the presidency, has been literally torn apart ideologically. It is not obviously the only reason that the country is so abysmally fractured. Trump is a symptom, he's not a cause. The incapacity of the two sides to talk to one another -- although it seems to me mainly in the last few months there is more of a willingness --but the sense that we don't recognize others that have very different political views as humans. It happens on campus. And Congress strikes me as astonishingly frightening.
And yet, what unites us all, for better or worse, is the English language. We disagree. We fight with one another. We diminish the other side, but always with the same words, or apparently with the same words. And the book is an attempt to show that the language belongs to all of us, that we shape it in different ways no matter what perspective we have, and that sometimes we might use a very different lexicon, even build sentences in dramatically opposing ways. But it is the American English language that belongs to us. Nobody legislates it. There's no academy that says this is the way the English language should be used. We are the depositories, we're the memory, we are the actors and chroniclers of it. And so, I wanted the book to be, now, a statement of this language that is an expression of a country that is being fractured.
OR: Can you talk a little bit about the debate among the Founding Fathers about whether there should be a standard English?
Stavans: The debate on what the American English ought to be goes back to the moment of the forging of this nation, of the republic. It obviously proceeds with the arrival in 1607 of the settlers. The use of that language right now, to us, feels foreign. The grammar, the syntax were so different from what we use today. It's roughly when Shakespeare is writing The Tempest that we are getting this onslaught of the rebels that arrive to the Northeast, and punctuation is erratic, as is capitalization.
And yet, by 1776, we have a dream of having a nation. And it is built around the concept that it's the English language that the settlers brought in isthe one that is going to shape us all. Of course, it has to be said that meant the erasing of the indigenous languages that were in this country andthe supremacy of the English language as the default language of everybody.
But the Founding Fathers understood very clearly, specifically in the tension between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, that languages evolve, that they need to be protected, that they need an authority, that there are forces that can bring them to the edge. And on the one hand, Adams is convinced that we should be like the French, that we should have an academy that is established, that is federally funded, and that legislates on how the English language should be used. Because if we're going to be a nation where enslaved people use the English language, and eventually immigrants, we need to figure out what the parameters of that language is. And on the other hand, you have this renaissance man, this polymath, Thomas Jefferson, who understands that languages rise and fall, that there's a Darwinian view of evolution of languages in that you don't protect the languages.
The languages protect you. English will thrive if the nation thrives, and if the people in the nation are healthy and interacting with one another, the intrusion of government in speaking the language is as foreign as the intrusion of government in other aspects of life. And of course, Jefferson had views of government intrusion in certain aspects of life, but not in others. So, there you have really an astonishing back and forth between what the federal government should do and what it shouldn't do. And it comes with a legacy that, whereas France and Spain and Germany and Italy had already, by then, developed an academy, an institution that protects language, the English language had not. It was up to figures, like Daniel Defoe and John Ruskin and others that every so often there would be an attempt in England to create such an institution funded by the Crown.
But they resisted it, and Americans inherited this idea that we don't need an institution. And it's fascinating. There are authorities that keep the language going that tell us how to spell, what syntactical structures we use. They are teachers, they are learned figures, parents that we interact with all the time, but we don't have such an academy. And that means that it is left to dictionaries to make this statement of if a word is accepted or a word is rejected. Another fascinating aspect of the English language is that many other countries, say Spain, have dictionaries that are prescriptive. They choose the words to include in order to prescribe how the language should be used. And if the scholars that belong to the academy don't like a word or don't believe that word should be used, it’s left out. There's always a big debate in dictionaries if obscenities should be included or not.
But in the United States, from the very beginning, we have descriptive dictionaries. They don't tell us how to use the language. They are reflecting how people are using the language. And so, if we have a word, like “bad,” that changes meaning as a result of pop culture, Michael Jackson and others, that is evolving into a sphere that wasn't foreseen, then the dictionary, like Merriam-Webster, has to change that definition, has to add a definition to that. The same thing with the word “they” that we have recently changed as a result of the gender pronouns. We all might agree or disagree with this, but those dictionaries are not legislating how the words should be used. They are stating how the people are using those words.
It strikes me as really extraordinary that the UK has, to my mind, the most astonishing of all dictionaries in any language, the Oxford English Dictionary, in that it is a university project, a not-for-profit, based in a learned institution. And that functions not as a commercial enterprise, but as an intellectual pursuit. Whereas, in the United States, the most established of dictionaries is Merriam-Webster and it is a commercial enterprise. There's no institution connected with it. And in order to survive, the Merriam-Webster folks need to sell copies. The OED also has to sell copies, but it doesn't depend on the sale of the copies to survive. And it is fascinating that this obsessively driven capitalist country has a dictionary that is obsessively driven to make a buck. Whereas, the British can be more relaxed, but maybe more aloof, too, and less anxious about the language as a result.
OR: So, the French Academy, actually, from my understanding, tries to almost stamp out regional languages like Provençal. I'm curious, in the reverse, because the English is so flexible, where do you draw the line between a dialect and a language? And as it's obviously a global language now, will English eventually become multiple languages? Is that happening?
Stavans: It's such an interesting question. Where do you draw the line? We're all drawing the line and it's hard to figure it out. Black English is an essential component of American English. Every so often, you have a big debate in how much of this work, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, should be part of the standard American English language? And why is it that we are still rejecting many of them? You have the same thing with Spanglish that is seen as a marginal way of communication. But 65 million people use Spanglish in this country, and there are, among those 65 million, many who are not fluent in English, who are not fluent in Spanish, they're only fluent in this concoction that is Spanglish. Is Spanglish also a part of English? Or is it a dialect that is loose?
There is a fascinating statement by a Yiddish lexicographer and linguist, Max Weinreich, that the difference between a dialect and a standard language is that the language has an army and a navy to defend it. Yiddish never had an army and a navy to defend it. Hebrew does. Spanglish or Black English do not. But English, American English, British English do because those are the languages connected with empire. They're connected with nations and patriotism. And one of the most appealing aspects of your question is that with the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin broke into pieces and became the Romance languages, French and Portuguese and Italian and Spanish. Latin today is a fossilized language. It doesn't have the flexibility of any of the Romance languages. And could we imagine the fracturing of the English language empire at one point that creates alternative languages that are all stepchildren of English rather than a varieties of English or closer dialects. Can a dialect really push in the direction of becoming something altogether autonomous and independent? My impression is that the globalism of the English language keeps us in a cohesive way not fracturing, but the globalism cannot hide the fact that there are many Englishes.
Even within the United States, there are many varieties of the English language, not only regional varieties, but generational varieties, Generation Z and the Millennials and the Baby Boomers, we all use the language in different ways. Minorities use the language in different ways. And then there is the language of sports and the language of advertising and the language of business and hip hop and rap and gangster English and you name it. So, it's a language that is incredibly versatile and incredibly volatile too.
For every five English language speakers, three are non-native born. They are people, either immigrants or people in other parts of the world that use the language that they have acquired in school as a second or third or fourth language. That puts a lot of pressure on native speakers that three out of five are non-native. And so you have all these funny expressions that the Chinese can concoct by translating from Mandarin into English or that the French do or so on and so forth.
But it is the lingua franca of the world today and don't know if it will remain so. China is taking over at the global stage. Mandarin and Cantonese are the most popular languages in terms of speakers in the world, but English is the universal language today. No language lasts forever. Are we in the decline stages of English? The 20th century was the American century. Is this the Chinese century or the Russian century or whoever else's century? And what does that mean for the language?
None of the great poets and playwrights and scholars and monks of Latin thought that Latin would cease to be central. And the same thing with French and German. Languages are living organisms and they have a childhood, an adulthood and an old age, and some of them can come back, like Hebrew, and some of them disappear.
OR: How much of American English are loan words or words that were brought by immigrants into the language as opposed to the original mother tongue?
Stavans: Well, the original mother tongue in and of itself was already a concoction of French and German. There are elements of Latin. And then when it arrives to the United States, there are so many words that come from the Italian immigrants or the Jewish. And not only words, but structures of sentences. Like from Yiddish, we will turn around a question: "This is what you really want?" That is infused with the origin of those immigrations.
There's a lot of Spanish in English in the southwest right now that we don't register that much in this part of the country. I don't know if I would be able to answer in terms of percentages, but I can say without a hint of doubt that immigrants are really the builders of the language, and it is the young people and the immigrants who really keep it going.
Older people tend to be more conservative about language. We tend to protect the words rather than create new words. But young people are the ones who are always concocting new words and pushing the language and are much more liberal. And then immigrants, just by virtue of trying to communicate, are infusing the language with new terms, stealing terms from the language into their own tongue.
With tourism and the global media right now the borders of language are so porous that everything is coming so fast. I was talking with the editor at large of Miriam-Webster yesterday. He told me that the fastest word ever to be incorporated into Miriam-Webster is COVID-19. They started hearing it at the very end of 2019, beginning of 2020. And by February, 30 days after they first saw it in print, it was already in the dictionary because everybody was looking up the word and not finding it in the dictionary.
And so it is the online version of Miriam-Webster that tells them what they don't have.
OR: What do you make of the examples of sort of tortured language coming out of political correctness and and especially this debate over the term Latinx?
Stavans: I think the woke construction of Latinx is an embarrassment. It makes no sense whatsoever. It is the result of a small, disconnected academic group who believe that they can establish how we use the language. The tongue stumbles every time that you want to put in the X. It doesn't even acknowledge the fact that the X in and of itself has had a very complex history in the Spanish language. History that has to do with the Aztecs and with the Spaniards arriving. Aztecs was originally spread with a J, and it changed to an X. Mexico was spelled with a J, and it changed to an X.
It has to do with the tension between the two languages. It is a symptom of how in an island, as the left-wing academics are, -- and I belong to that environment. And I think that the fact that we are hearing all the time that nobody is using this term anywhere except for in the classroom feels like an invented reality altogether.
It happens in other places of our society. But it's a symptom of the ideological divides that we have. When I think of Latinos, not Latinx, but Latinos, Republicans will not call the group Latinos, will call them Hispanics. The Democratic Party, Ocasio-Cortez and Schumer and others will call them Latinos. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal within the same article will go back and forth between Hispanic and Latino in order not to make easy affiliation to this side or to the other side.
It frequently happens that there's a big conversation nationwide about a particular term, say gay and LGBT, that is settling down, and that we're all witnessing this kind of back and forth that are taking place. And you have extreme voices both on the right and on the left that will try to push the language over the edge, like with the Latinx. And my impression is that it will only last three, four years and then we'll have to go back. But this has been a pernicious effort because departments have changed their names to Latinx departments. Entire organizations have changed their names, but nobody else is using these terms.
OR: On the flip side of that, you have in the book some of Trump's tweet. Do you think there's a coarsening going on because of social media of the discourse that the language can capture?
Stavans: No, I believe that language acts in every moment in ways that have to do, on the one hand, with survival and on the other one, with regeneration. Social media has pushed the language into new frontiers. The censoring strategies of the left have also pushed the language into new frontiers. But look, Borges has beautifully said once that censorship is the mother of metaphor, and if we get censored by one group, it's an invitation to start using other words in strategic, inspiring ways to say the same things. And bright, sharp audiences will always be able to get that.
I don't think that there has been any point in US history or any point in human history where there is not somebody who's worrying about the state of the language. That anxiety is part of the health of the language, to me. Part and parcel of trying to look for some health within it, but also recognizing that the most stable aspect of language is change. It has to change in order to survive.
So, when Donald Trump uses all these exclamation marks, well, some of us might say it's ridiculous, but ultimately they will affect the way people use an exclamation mark for better or worse, and in unforeseen ways. Shakespeare invented about 2,000 words. The word lawyer was not in the language, and he inserted it. And writers also have that freedom to introduce words in print. Once you put it in print, it becomes much more accepted than anybody using it.
OR: When someone coins 2,000 words, how did people know where they came from and what they meant?
Stavans: This is fascinating. The effort in the first edition of the OED was not only to reflect how the language was being used in 1719, when the first full edition came of the first volumes, but to give a historical sense of how the words had been used. The Merriam-Webster is a contemporary dictionary. It gives you the words as they are used today with some layers. But the OED is a historical dictionary. It will go and tell you, "The word was first used by Milton," or by Chaucer or Emily Dickinson. Or at least that is the effort that the scholars have perceived in seeing that at no other previous time was a certain word circulating the way it began to circulate when Shakespeare first stamped it on Othello or on As You Like It, so on and so on.
And so every writer feels at some point that the words that they have are insufficient, that you have to push a word into a new level or create a new word. Remember that in the age of Shakespeare, there were no copy editors that are coming back to us and telling us, "Are you sure this word is the right one? Let's come up with something else." And he himself did not care that much that his plays ended up being printed. He was interested in poetry for posterity, and writing plays was like writing television right now: you watch it, and you forget about it.
Joyce created many, many, many more words to Shakespeare, but we don't use them the way we use the Shakespeare words because of the ubiquity, the popularity of Shakespeare, and because Joyce is seen more as an erudite writer than Shakespeare.
OR: You mentioned the exclamation point. Can you talk about your interest in it?
Stavans: I love exclamation points, and I have a passion for trying to trace where they come in as a punctuation. Where and when did the exclamation point, as an icon, first appear? We have the impression that it came from some monks trying to transcribe versions of Latin into some of the romance languages.
The exclamation point now is everywhere, because we're in a country where everything is aggrandized, "How's your day?" "Great!" "How are you doing?" "Amazing!" Nobody's just having a normal day or an average relationship with somebody else. Everything has to be exponentially pushed to the nth degree. It's no surprise that the exclamation point is one of the most favorite punctuations that we have.
In Spanish, we have inverted exclamation points. But there have been poets, like Pablo Neruda, who said, "This is ridiculous. We need to be like any other languages and gave up the whole idea of having inverted exclamation points," which for some of us is too bad because it's a lovely aspect of the language.
I was talking yesterday at a public lecture at the New York Public Library that it seems that the very last poem that Emily Dickinson wrote, the very last word, is followed by an exclamation mark, which is a lovely statement from this delicate, introverted, asocial poet located here in Amherst, Massachusetts.
If you go to the original version of the Bible, there's no punctuation in any way. And that's how we follow tropes when we recite the Torah. Shakespeare uses exclamation points very erratically. But today, exclamation points are everywhere in social media. The young people sometimes answer with an exclamation point, forget about anything else.
Stavans: I’m so much into that punctuation mark, it's gorgeous.
OR: I guess it's interesting, Ilan, particularly around the fighting over some of the ridiculousness around academic speak and political correctness, but also people being upset about slang and this kind of thing, is that people really, even if they're not as consciously erudite as they used to be, they really care about language, right?
Stavans: I'm amazed, but I shouldn't be at how much people really care about language. Even those that pretend not to care, the young, really care about language. And it feels, on the surface, that, well, it's just the words that we use. But the words are who we are and how we dress up or how we present ourselves to others.
And the language wars, so to speak, are really intense because it is in the language where our DNA is really found. I love the capacity that Americans have to feel ownership of that language that was foreign to us. It's a borrowed language that we received from the British, and here we are, having turned it around and really refurbished it and having produced incredible literature, incredible political speeches, entertainment in that language. Whatever happens with the American empire, the statement of how we use the language is already there for the ages for people to recognize. And each and every one of these pieces in the anthology, and in every single piece, is really a moment in the evolution of all of us in connection with this ancestral language and in connection with how we build this country around a language that is not official. Certain states make it official, but the Constitution did not, fortunately, make it official. And what we do with it, for better or for worse, is up to us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.