The immigration debate often centers on who should be welcomed into our country. Some even argue that multiculturalism dilutes our national character — that the very the essence of the country is somehow vanishing. But far from undermining the American experiment, immigrants enhance our culture by introducing new ideas, cuisines and art. They also enrich the English language.
As newcomers master a new language, they lend words from their native lexicon to the rest of us. For example, the English language, or maybe we should just call it American, has borrowed from others to name the foods so many of us love. Italians gave us pizza and spaghetti, and we borrowed taco, burrito and churros from the Spanish language.
Chinese immigrants introduced us to chopsticks, while the ketchup we drown our hot dogs, burgers and fries in is believed to have derived from a Chinese word. Irish immigrants introduced us to hooligan, phony and galore — and from Yiddish we got the words chutzpah and schlep. The terms diva, tornado and tycoon came from other languages, too.
Scores of words are invented every day, while old words are pushed aside to make room for new ones. Some loans have a short life span; others become an essential part of our day-to-day. Their staying power can depend on the process of assimilation — the time it takes a group to enter the middle class and the connection that group retains to its origins.
Of course, American English hasn’t just borrowed heavily from those coming from distant shores. Words like kayak, chipmunk, tobacco and hurricane are derived from some of the roughly 300 Native American languages spoken by those who were here long before most of our ancestors arrived. More than half of America’s states owe their names to Native American origin. I think of the poet Natalie Diaz, who wrote:
Manhattan is a Lenape word.
Even a watch must be wound.
How can a century or a heart turn
if nobody asks, Where have all
the natives gone?
Our nation’s founders would likely understand little of what we say today, given the amount of fresh acquisitions we’re always making. John Adams, our second president, was convinced that American English required a federally funded version of L’Académie Française in order to safeguard the people’s tongue from “going to the dogs.” He proposed, in 1780, a strategy to build one. But Thomas Jefferson, who sought to protect Native American languages and is credited with introducing words like belittle and pedicure into our lexicon, disagreed. He believed that a language has its own survival mechanisms.
Adams, fortunately, was on the losing side. American English is of, for and by the people, and its well-being depends on us. We do with it as we wish — or as we feel, since language is so often shaped by gut emotions. There are authorities within each language, of course, chief among them parents, educators, language scholars and dictionaries.
When our foundational dictionary, Noah Webster’s “An American Dictionary of the English Language,” published in 1828 it only included 70,000 words. To be accepted into it, words must suit a specific criterion. Over time, it became Merriam-Webster, a commercial lexicon that now contains over 15 million examples of words. It is descriptive rather than prescriptive, as dictionaries in other languages might be. That is, Merriam-Webster doesn’t tell us how to speak. It’s the other way around: Native speakers and immigrants alike dictate what the dictionary should contain.
A Mexican immigrant myself, I am constantly amazed at how, in its 450-year history, American English has become stunningly elastic. It has recalibrated itself by learning from the past. It is essential that it continues to do so. Don’t give up your accent! Don’t lose your immigrant verbal heritage! As an immigrant myself, I find joy in hearing accents, particularly those by people who have mastered American English yet retain a beautiful trace of their native tongue.
It’s important to note that speaking English hasn’t always been a choice for some. Immigrants are sometimes made to feel that they have to suppress their language in order to belong. Throughout history, children have been physically disciplined or discriminated against for speaking their native language.
I recently stumbled on an episode of NPR’s “Where We Come From,” in which Emily Kwong, a third-generation Chinese American, discusses her quest to become comfortable with her Chinese self. Her father spoke Mandarin until he entered kindergarten, at which point he was forced to speak English. He explained how his need to integrate fueled his desire to become fluent, and he forgot how to speak his native tongue. In the process his family lost an important part of their cultural heritage.
Emily Dickinson thought that words start a new, discreet cycle of life the moment they are uttered. While American English can be perceived as a threat to the survival of other cultures around the world, within our country it is a force that helps to bind us together, even as ideological polarization pulls the other way. Immigrants help us reinvigorate our multitudinous language.
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring professor at Amherst College and a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The People’s Tongue: Americans and the English Language.”
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