How Do You Say Oklahoma in English?
I’ve been thinking about all of the new “English Only” laws at the state level. Like the referendum scheduled in Oklahoma to consider these propositions:
No state agency shall provide documents in any language but English. No local government shall provide documents in any language but English. No county government shall provide documents in any language but English. This change requires all documents prepared at taxpayer expense to be printed in English only.
But the state’s name is not in English. Shall it be translated? How about the names of its cities like Santa Fe? (There is no city Santa Fe in Oklahoma, but there is a Santa Fe Trail.) Will that be changed to Holy Faith? This kind of stuff could really transform maps and stationery, especially in states with foreign names like Nevada, Vermont, Colorado, Mississippi, Kansas…What about Greek and Latin? Will scientific nomenclature in these two languages be stripped from all state documents? Will the courts refuse to print “habeas corpus” and “sui generis” and “res ipsa loquitur?”
But beyond that, just what English will be used? The English language of today is a compendium of words and phrases left not just by the Angles but by Viikings and Celts, not to mention French-speaking Normans, Romans (this post is written in Latin script, not in runes), and Germanic tribes. When the British went on their Empire bender, the language picked up more words from India, the Caribbean, Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia. (Like chutney–that’s not English; it should not be printed on the menu of a state legislature’s cafeteria, no more than crudités or felafel.)
In part because of that history, English now has one of the largest vocabularies in the world, further expanded by the westward expansion of the US and the adoption of a variety of Indian and Spanish words, like caucus, rodeo, chaparral, and siesta. It happens to other languages: about 8% of Spanish words have Arabic roots, and Persian, too, picked up a lot of words from Arabic. And Spanish—I mean Castilian, not necessarily Galician, Catalan, or Basque—adopted many indigenous words in America during its days of empire. As the reader surely knows, “chocolate” comes from the Nahuatl xocolatl or xicolatl, and "hurricane," "hammock," and "bar-b-que" come from the Caribbean Arawaks.
English syntax lends itself to the creation of new words, notably by making verbs from nouns ("Supersize that?"). Commercial language assaults established practice every day, without correction. ("Healthy" food? It’s dead! Try eating something healthful.) And then there are all the neologisms from technological development. Dictionaries long ago gave up being prescriptive and became descriptive: if enough people use it, it’s official, they say. The truth is that you can’t stop the morphing. The only languages that stand still do so because they are dead.
So, what exactly is the English that English Only would require? Will we have a standard reference? We’d need to clean up all the dialects from around the country, and the imports from Indian and Jamaican and Australian dialects, too: translate them into standard US English as of the time that the standard is printed, or delete them. But, blimey, what about Cockney and such? I fergot. I was distracted, thinking about the lorry I saw at the petrol station. Or is it naphta? Oh, bollocks. Let’s just get back to Shakespeare (is that the correct spelling?).
P.S. I hope to heavens that this story is apocryphal, but it rings true: I received word last night that the following took place near Hazleton, Penn., at a school board’s debate on whether to continue to fund foreign language classes (not bilingual education). One of the board members declared: "If English was good enough for my lord and savior Jesus Christ, then it’s good enough for my kids."
Update: Thanks to reader HJ Hoxley for pointing out that there is no "Santa Fe" in Oklahoma. I meant to refer to the Santa Fe Trail, but it came out otherwise. I regret the error.