Goldstein: Press 1 for English

The dark undertones of our language.

by Matthew Goldstein | 10/19/17 1:30am

The Atlantic’s Molly Ball wrote in September 2017 that many Americans “resent having to press 1 for English when they call customer service.” One might note that the mere motion of “pressing 1” is an odd action to complain about, but then, the complaint isn’t truly about phones or any number on their keypads. Instead, the objection to “pressing 1” is about the idea that, as an American, one should not have to undertake any effort to indulge in using the English language or indulge the outsiders coming in to hear — shock! horror! — Spanish.

The very notion of a group encapsulates both inclusion and exclusion. So it is for modern America, so it has certainly been for the nation-state and its political and cultural forebears throughout history. In defining its borders, whether geographic or sociological, the in-group elevates itself relative to the out-group that results from its formation. It adopts a name, a set of accepted practices, customs and laws, perhaps, and thus a collective identity. Its members develop a psychological connection to the group. They incorporate its well-being into their own. And key to the in-group adopting a belief in its superiority to others is a signifier so ubiquitous, so readily accessible and so foundational that it can prompt true fear at merely having to lift a finger. That signifier? Language.

The word “barbarian” can hardly be understood except as a pejorative denoting the “uncivilized,” “uncultured” or otherwise “unsavory.” But it traces its etymological roots to the northern Mediterranean where, to ancient Greeks, it originally denoted somebody who did not speak Greek — generally the Medes and Persians. The term originates from the Greek word “bárbaros”, an onomatopoeia mimicking the sounds Greeks heard when foreigners spoke. Despite the term’s later negative normative connotation to the Romans, who used it to refer to peoples outside the Greco-Roman cultural tradition more broadly, “barbarian” originated as a purely descriptive term. The barbarians were merely those whose speech sounded to the Greek ear like a rattle of “bar bar bar” — no more, no less.

Whereas the Greeks had a term that specified to them those who could not speak Greek, the Polish have a similar term for an entire country. Among the many names for Germany in different languages is the Polish “Niemcy,” which derives from the proto-Slavic němьcь (nee-YEM-sih), which literally means “a mute one.” The term harbors more insidious implications than the ostensibly more insulting “barbarian.” The Greeks held only that barbarians were those who did not speak Greek, but the Poles held that Germans were actually, substantively mute — a small but important distinction. In denying Germans the agency that speech accords a human being, němьcь reduces them to a level not just below the Poles but to nearly the sub-human. Whereas the Greek or Roman may have held that the barbarian was worse than he in degree, the Pole held that the German was substantively different from him in kind.

The distinction between the Greek’s descriptive “does not speak my language” and the Pole’s normative “cannot speak at all” is evident contemporarily. In his 2001 article in Harper’s, “Authority and American Usage,” David Foster Wallace described the different dialects of American English, many of which “have their own highly developed and internally consistent grammars” and qualify, essentially, as distinct languages to the communities that use them. Wallace noted that so-called “correct” English is merely a sub-dialect, one whose community of discourse is characterized by, for example, the classroom.

We find the same kind of insidiousness as in the Polish term quite readily in the way speakers of “classroom” English treat those of other sub-dialects. Speakers of Black English (a sub-dialect of Wallace’s positing), for example, are commonly held to be merely bastardizing “correct” English. The notion that speakers of Black English might actually be speaking a different language — one whose syntax and spelling are similar to “correct” English, yet whose application occurs in a different range of circumstances and between members of different groups of people — is crucially overlooked. The speaker of “correct” English concludes not the Greeks’ “they are speaking some other language,” but rather, in their determination of the capabilities of speakers of Black English, the Poles’ “they are incapable of truly speaking at all.” This is a far more damaging proposition.

So the situation is with Americans and “pressing 1.” Those who protest the notion that they ought to be comfortable hearing languages other than English in regular use do so not out of annoyance but in a bid to retain their in-group superiority. Such superiority rests in part on the notion that the in-group exhibits greater capabilities than does the out-group. If some language other than English were afforded any sort of co-equal status, the speakers of that language would progress from “those who cannot speak at all” to “those who do not speak my language.” This is because capability as an idea does not enter the conceptual fray when one speaks of a non-language. If you do not consider Black English a language, it makes no sense to judge whether one speaks Black English “well” or not — in either case, to you, she is just mangling “correct” English.

Allowing Spanish to the American linguistic fore — considering it an American language — would erase the capability gap between in-group and out-group that occurs when Spanish is judged merely as not-English and thus its speakers as “those who cannot speak at all.” The English supremacist, as it were, would not have that happen, thank you very much. Complaining about “pressing 1” is no benign act, then. It is a tacit rejoinder to humanity of the would-be barbarians, the němьcь among us.