United, states should speak English

If you reside in one of the 50 United States, get ready for some long-term ugliness. Last week, the House passed a bipartisan bill that will allow Puerto Rican citizens to decide the future of their Caribbean island. By the end of the year, should the Senate pass a similar pending bill, Puerto Rico will hold a plebiscite to determine if they will remain a commonwealth, become an independent country or will fully join our nation as the 51st state.
Much of the debate surrounding the House bill concerned problems associated with adding a significantly less prosperous state to the union. The General Accounting Office estimates that a mere $49 million in new federal income tax would come from Puerto Rico at an expense of three to four billion dollars in new federal benefits for the islanders. A secondary concern was the impact of six new seats on the House. Republicans fear that these presumably Democratic seats may shift the balance of power away from their current majority.
Mixed in with all the economic and partisan debating was an amendment to the bill that was far more important than anything else. The House, in its infinite lack of wisdom, killed a provision that would have required Puerto Rico to adopt English as its primary, official language. Our shared linguistic background — we were all trained in the intricacies of English — provides not only a means of communication, but also a common point of cultural reference, a point we do not now share with Puerto Rico.
The islanders’ deeply ingrained Spanish heritage results from centuries of Spanish control. In 1509, Puerto Rico was conquered by Ponce de Leon. It remained a Spanish colony until December, 1898, when the Spanish ceded it to the United States in the Treaty of Paris. Puerto Ricans do not just take pride in Spanish as a language, but as cultural identity — a culture wholly different from the remainder of the United States.
A brief look at two of our closest allies points to the folly of a larger nation subsuming a smaller group that possess such radically different cultural norms.
The most exciting news to come out of Canada since Bob and Doug McKenzie made “Strange Brew” has been filtering south in recent years. The Province of Quebec has been pushing for independence, citing a French cultural predominance that is being stifled by the largely English-speaking remainder of Canada. The Quebecois are fighting through the Canadian courts and legislature for the right to secede. Though this pro-French sentiment is currently only an annoyance for the remainder of Canada, the final impact has yet to be determined. For the moment things are calm.
But consider a standoff that has turned deadly. In the United Kingdom, Northern Irish Catholics have taken their fight for cultural and political autonomy to an extreme. Murders occur on the streets of Belfast and bombs are blowing up in downtown London. Had the English imposed the same cultural assimilation on Northern Ireland that they did in Wales, certainly they would have avoided these modern problems. When Wales was conquered, the English language was mandated, and although the Welsh still possess their own cultural identity, it is as a part of the greater United Kingdom. Through common language and culture, the Welsh have integrated into the whole. (Although there is the minor exception of Plaid Cymru, a minority separatist group that causes little trouble and is not taken very seriously.)
Could a Puerto Rican state become our own Northern Ireland? Puerto Rico’s Spanish speaking population is more homogeneously different from American culture — with 98 percent speaking Spanish — than either Quebec, where 82 percent speak French, or Northern Ireland, where the dominant language is already English. Add to this a vocal, nationalist movement that is already present, and the recipe for disaster is complete. We have already heard claims from the likes of Carlos M. Ayes, who is associated with the pro-independence group Los Macheteros, warning, “Statehood will mean war. Violence is hard to stomach, but George Washington killed thousands of British to gain recognition for thirteen colonies that claimed the right to be independent. If the United States wants its very own Northern Ireland, let them continue this farce.”
And all of this points to one, irrefutable conclusion — we must make English language proficiency and cultural accommodation part of any push for Puerto Rican statehood.
Such a move would not be unprecedented. When Louisiana was granted statehood, a linguistic requirement mandated by the Louisiana Enabling Act of 1811 required that all legislative and judicial activities in the state be conducted in English. Likewise, Oklahoma and New Mexico were both required to conduct public school education in English, and Arizona was required to guarantee that its government officials be able to read, write, speak and understand English.
The question remains, though: What sort of English should we expect Puerto Ricans to learn? Will Ebonics count? How about the Southern dialect? Is “y’all” a proper word? Should it be a crime if one splits an infinitive or dangles a participle? That little voice that speaks for our collective subconscious, that represents our cultural gestalt, is clamoring in the back of my mind to stop asking such stupid questions, but it is still there. What counts as English?
When I was a sophomore at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, we had an English teacher named Father Streicher. He was tall, thin, pale, white-haired and, we were all convinced, older than God. His views on English were straightforward enough. Do it his way or else. The man was so uptight about formalities that he would measure the margins of our papers with a ruler. If they were not exactly one inch, you lost points. If you left a preposition at the end of a sentence, that would cost you. Failure to have subject/verb agreement and you could kiss that A goodbye.
At the time we all hated him. We just did not understand how any human could be expected to live up to such high linguistic standards. But for all the mental pain and anguish (the physical coming from Father Serva, the biology teacher, who smacked you upside your head when you got an answer wrong), I arrived in college with the ability to actually write a coherent, well-structured paper. Father Streicher had done his job well.
There was a downside to this training, though. I have become something of a grammarian in my own right. Since the rules of proper syntax were burned into my brain like the fiery word of God, it pains me when I see them ignored. And I am not alone.
Basically your linguistic types can be divided into one of two classes: laid-back and anal-retentive (also known as descriptive and prescriptive grammarians). The descriptive grammarians believe that it is their job to observe the natural evolution of English and report. Syntactical structures are only right or wrong relative to Norma Loquendi, the common language. These are the same wishy-washy types that turn out to be cultural relativists, physical anti-realists and Neo-Postmodern-Deconstructive-Gender-Studies majors, incapable of taking a firm stand on any issue.
The prescriptive grammarians, on the other hand, are the cops of the English language. They’re the ones who believe that there is good and bad syntax, independent of Norma Loquendi. English is meant to be spoken properly, by following the rules, by not splitting infinitives, by telling the polite inquirer that you are doing well, not good.
Despite their uptight nature, prescriptive grammarians play an important role. Even though they cannot stop language from evolving, by sheer annoyance and guilt power they keep it from changing too fast. By clinging to obscure rules of sentence formation, they prevent us from sliding out of control into the murky linguistic waters of pidgin, creole or Ebonics.
Since English, over the short term, remains constant, we can hope to use the current descriptive account as the foundation for Puerto Rican change. They should learn the English that is most popular in America right now, and try to stick with it under the smacking ruler of prescriptive English teachers who make sure they follow the rules.
We should welcome Puerto Rico as a new state when the time is right; but that time is not now. Suddenly opening our arms to a unique culture will lead us to disaster. They must first become more like us, part of a unified nation. When they can proudly recite the Pledge of Allegiance in English, the time will have arrived. It is only sane to expect them to join the American melting pot, not become a frying pan next to it on the stove.

Chris Trejbal’s column appears every Tuesday. He welcomes comments at [email protected]