Dear Donald Trump, define “English”


Donald Trump says Jeb Bush “…should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.”  Bush, talking to reporters about Trump’s polices, quipped “El hombre no es conservador,” which translates to, “This man is not a conservative.”

Well, Ol’ Donny’s kinda got me askert, cuz I ain’t sure what counts as English. English gits at least half of its common words from non-Anglo-Saxon stock, and I don’t want to give up half my vocabulary (it’s jes fair-ta-middlin anywho). ‘Sides, I don’t know which half I have to drop down the ol’ Wisconsin two-holer.

“Shampoo” comes from India, “chaparral” from the Basques, “ketchup” from China, “potato” from Haiti, “sofa” from Arabia, “boondocks” from the Tagalog language of the Philippines, “poppycock” from Dutch (it means “soft dung”), “chowder” from French and “bankrupt” from Italian. Even our beloved dollar derives its name from the name of a German silver mine, donchaknow hey.

We borrowed more than 500 words from the Spanish settlers of this hemisphere, many of which were adopted from Amerindian languages, and many of which were Mexican inventions. These, I presume, will all be outlawed, which is kinda weird, because Spanish was here before America was here. Spanish explorers and settlers have been here since the 16th Century, present in areas of 42 future states. It will get a little impractical, too, because the US has the second highest number of Spanish-speaking residents (roughly 51 million) in the world (second to Mexico).

If Donny won’t let us speak Spanish, does this mean I can’t order a taco at a rodeo, where I’m watching a macho buckaroo wearing chaps ride a mustang bronco in the corral?  Or how about relaxing in the breeze by an arroyo down in the canyon?  Bad enough that I won’t be able to say “Let’s go to the cafeteria and get a barbeque sandwich, but I won’t be able to warn you when either a mosquito or an alligator is about to bite you, or when a tornado is headed your way. We won’t be able to rumba in the plaza or tango on the patio.  Ay dios mio!

And what about words that we borrowed from other languages and have since been abandoned by their languages of origin? The French no longer use nom deplume, double entendre, panache, bon viveur or RSVP (repondez s’il vous plait). Does that mean these words are now ours? Finders keepers, losers weepers?

There will be a couple-two-tree places in need of re-naming.  Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Utah will all have to give up their Spanish names.

Then there are those nouns in need of new adjectival forms, because the forms now in use are not English: town and urban, sun and solar, water and aquatic, house and domestic, moon and lunar, mouth and oral, eyes and ocular, fingers and digital, and, of course, book and literary.

Some words aren’t English, but didn’t come to us from other languages. They’re accidents. We hear words wrong, then use them wrong. “Cater corner” was misheard so that it became “catty-corner,” and then made cute by “kitty-corner.” “Sparrow-grass” was misheard as “asparagus.” “Buttonhold” was misheard as “buttonhole.” English or not?

Pea, cherry, grovel, sidle, greed, beg and difficult are all accidents of bad grammar, created by false analogy or back-formation. Pease (as in “pease porridge hot”) and cherries were mistakenly thought to signify plurals, and we back-formed errant singular forms. Criminey.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are at least 350 words in English that owe their existence to typographical errors or other misrenderings. What about these accidents? Official language or not?

And when we say we want English to be the only language, whose English do we mean? British English or American English? Being older, isn’t the British version more “really” English? And if we go with American English, which version do we use? Is it a drinking fountain or a bubbler? Is it soda or is it pop? Is “regular” coffee white, as in Boston and New York, or black, as in everywhere else? Are you a “torist” on a “tore” as in California, or a “tourist” on a “tour” as in the other 49 states? Americans have 79 names for dragon flies, 130 for oak trees and 176 for the dust balls under the bed. (Of course, some words deserve to die, such as the medical term that begins “methianylglutaminyl” and finishes 1,913 letters later as “alynalalanylthreonilarginylserase.” She’s a humdinger, you betcha.)

And if we decide our official language is American English from Wisconsin (uff dah to dat), is it today’s language or our language from 50 years ago? Or 100? In the 1300s, “aweful” meant  inspiring wonder.  In the 1900s, “bimbo” meant an inconsequential man, in the 1920s it meant a woman of loose morals, and now it means a stupid woman. “Nice” comes from a Latin word meaning “ignorant,” but by the 14th Century the meaning changed to foolish or silly, evolved to wantonness, extravagance, cowardice and sloth, and then to simply shy. It didn’t take on a positive meaning until the 18th Century.

And what about tomorrow’s language? On average, we add 3,000 to 4,000 words per year to English, so it’ll be different then from what we speak today, aina-hey?

Believe you me, if there is one thing that is truly multicultural about our culture, one aspect of our lives that is a valid melting pot, it’s our language. And because language is not static, but a living, evolving, adapting organism, the melting continues today, as it will tomorrow and the day after.

Perhaps the politicians can save us. Maybe they could set up a vigilante to make sure our language stays nice and vanilla.  Oops, vigilante and vanilla are Spanish words.  Sorry. Perhaps they could form a caucus and come up with a slogan to help us know which words to use and which to avoid. Of course, they couldn’t tell us about it, because “caucus” is an Algonquin Indian word and “slogan” is Gaelic. And that just wouldn’t be English.

So, Don, maybe you could help us out, so’s we know what we can and can’t say:  Please, define “English” for us.

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