L.A. Times- In English, But Still Unintelligible


By: Warner Todd Huston

On May 24th, the L.A. Times printed the oddest Opinion Editorial on the subject of making English the national language. “American Spoken Here” was written by David Eggenschwiler, professor emeritus of English at USC, but I defy anyone to tell me what the thing was really about? (For article Click here)

For a professor of English, Eggenschwiler didn’t express himself very well, it’s sad to say, and after reading — and re-reading — the good Professor’s piece I was struck by the fact that it isn’t clear at all what he was on about. I suppose, though, that one might be a fine professor of English yet still not be much of a creative writer. At least, I hope that this is possible. In any case, it is hard to decipher if he was being sarcastic, sincere or jocular.

One thing was clearly discernible, though. It is obvious that Eggenschwiler feels patriotism equates to ignorance.

“Ignorance is not only bliss but also patriotism”, Eggenschwiler clumsily wrote after recounting a meeting with a student who complained that a novel had too many foreign words contained in the text for her to understand the story. This aside of his seemed gratuitous, as well.

Anyway, since I have to believe the good Professor meant for some theme with his Op Ed, I will have to assume it was one of sarcasm. After saying that the English only amendments to the Senate immigration bill didn’t “go far enough”, Eggenschwiler wondered “Which English?” the Senate was attempting to establish? Would it be “Just anybody’s” English? He hoped not.

While I can agree that Americans heavily abuse English, I think Eggenschwiler’s worry that “just anybody’s English” is untenable as a national language is overblown, to say the least.

After rambling on about the French Court’s attempts to standardize or make official the French language in the 17th Century, Eggenschwiler then seemed to moan that most Americans were not multilingual. Next, after the quixotic lament that it’s impossible to bring Chaucer’s Midland dialect from 14th century England to America today, he went on to propose that we create an “American English” for our national culture, duly certified by some process he doesn’t reveal ala the French Court experiment apparently.

Eggenschwiler wishes for us to have a “national, common language of Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather” instead of one infected with “Spanglish, Ebonics, Valley Girl lilts or any dialect spoken south of the Mason-Dixon Line”. So much for that love of “diversity” most professors are imbued with. And this is why I think … and mind you it is only a guess … that Eggenschwiler was being sarcastic. The French Court mandating French? Chaucer’s English in the USA? A disgust with “dialect”? Cronkite and Rather employing the perfect dialect?

Please. It all amounts to a certain amount of absurdity.

To get down to his message (at least the one I think he is positing), English expert Eggenschwiler seems to be proposing that there is no and can be no real national language. He apparently feels this is so because of the many regional and cultural differences in the language from one area of the country to another paralleling the way that dialect can be so limiting in Europe. He seems to hint that if it were impossible in France in the 17th century to standardize French because of the many dialects it would be the same for us today with English. But this is quite a disingenuous claim. Even at its worst, English in America is not so wildly different as a result of dialect that a citizen from New York could not understand one from Arkansas. By contrast, dialect in Europe can be so different as to make clarity quite difficult within the same language group from one region to another. We just don’t have that here without relying on hyperbole to define the proposition.

Eggenschwiler appears to imagine that if we all speak like TV newsreader Walter Cronkite, we might “use our pure language to put more unum in the pluribus”. But the simple fact that Cronkite was able to communicate for decades with little trouble in every corner of the country easily reveals that our pluribus is pretty unum-ed already.

So, to make English our national language would not require any further definition or specification of what English is and that shoots down in flaming wreckage the good professor’s sarcastic point, I’d say. If Eggenschwiler meant sarcasm with his Op Ed, if he meant to say all this emphasis on English as a national language is ridiculous, he certainly didn’t present an argument worthy of proving his point.

And, of course, being a professor, Eggenschwiler couldn’t miss a chance to make fun of president Bush. His last line was:

“Then let’s have someone teach it (our “pure language”) to our president so that he can lead properly as the Sun King did. Vive la langue Americain.”

Yes, yes. Bush is too stupid and cannot speak “American”. Ho hum.

I suppose he tacked on this foolishness as a paean to his fellows in academia so that he might stay an educator in good standing with the fever swamp left. He doesn’t want to be thrown out of the cool club, I suppose. But, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at this, should we?

So, to sum up Eggenschwiler’s point(s): Patriotism is akin to ignorance. Making English a national language is foolish. And president Bush is a dolt.

Our English professor sure wasted a lot of words to say what I just presented in one sentence.

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