Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World



The Latin Heritage of American Speech

Recently released 2010 Census data indicates that Latin-American immigration to the United States continues to surge since 2001, the year that Latinos became the largest minority in the country. About half of recent births in the U.S. are minorities; more than a quarter of infants are Hispanic. Hispanics account for more than half of all infants in California, Texas, and New Mexico. They are the largest source of births in Nevada and Arizona. Demographer William Frey at The Brookings Institution has declared that America has reached its “demographic tipping point.”

The signs of rising Latin-American influence are everywhere. On television, Soledad O’Brien delivers the news. On film, TV, and radio, Jennifer Lopez sells a Latin-spiced vibe. Latin grocery stores are opening in historic town squares and supermarkets are adding Latin favorites like plantains and tamarind soda.

Today’s Congress includes the first pair of sisters in its history, U.S. Reps. Loretta and Linda Sanchez, both Democrats from California. They both happen to be Hispanic—of Mexican descent. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is set to grow substantially due to new House seats in Texas, Florida, Arizona, and Nevada. New Latino members of Congress from Texas and Florida would rise fast politically, given the outsized influence of those jurisdictions on national politics.

Despite the potential for immigration to enrich American culture, fearful, panic reactions to multiculturalism have spread nationwide as Latin-American language, cuisine, and politics imprints cities, towns, and rural areas more than ever.

A new Alabama law, HB 56, requires state public schools to determine the immigration status of students upon enrollment. The day after a U.S. District Court upheld this and other provisions of the law, more than two thousand Hispanic students were recorded absent from public schools, or about 7 percent of the total enrolled statewide.

Mexican-born Jose, a 16-year-old undocumented student in Pelham, Alabama, is frantic about the future. “Alabama makes me live in fear. If Mom drives me to school, a policeman could arrest me just because of the color of my skin.” On Friday, October 14th, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily blocked this provision pending the outcome an appeal.

As the 2012 presidential race heats up, state immigration laws like Alabama’s will surely see debate, as will proposals for federal legislation that make the education system a tool of immigration policy. One such proposal would establish English as the official language of the United States. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), 2008 GOP presidential candidate, often seen as a moderate in his party, supported such a federal measure. Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the U.S. House, both conservative Republican candidates for president in 2012, support English as a national language.

Nostalgia is the keynote of most speeches advocating English as the official tongue—yearning for the Anglo-Saxon roots of U.S. law, culture, and language. “Traditional, pure” English is often evoked by anti-immigration politicians amid calls for pride in American hegemony and national identity. For many conservative politicians, cowboy foreign policy in the tradition of George W. Bush is their guiding principle, and John Wayne never wore a sombrero. Yet, this argument belies the true history of the English language, which was influenced early and often by Latin, the chief linguistic ancestor of modern Spanish.

The story of English is one of multicultural clash. A millennium of invasions marked the metamorphosis of English; the Romans invaded Britain first, followed by the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and the Normans. On the battlefield, foreign words were imported into English en masse.

The Romans, influenced by the Greeks, were thinkers, inventors, and politicians. Their Latin language brought words conveying ideas, learning, and obfuscation to English. The English words “erudite,” “abstruse,” and “obfuscate” come from Latin roots. This ancestry differs from the Scandinavian parentage of English; the latter reflects a battle-hungry culture. From the Vikings, we enjoy the words “berserk” and “thrall.”

Viking culture celebrated the frenzied, cold-blooded warrior—the berserker. Many concepts in English can be expressed with both Latinate words and words rooted in Anglo-Saxon. “Kingly” is Germanic; “royal” is from Latin via French, and “regal” is directly from Latin.

Common English surnames like “Fitzgerald” and “Fitzwallis” have Latin roots. “Fitz” is a corruption of the French “fils” for “son,” so Fitzgerald means “son of Gerald.” During the Renaissance a legion of new Latin words entered the English language. Other non-Germanic languages like Sanskrit have also influenced the formation of modern English. Some words like “gargantuan” come from literary sources. Others like “gibberish” are of unknown origin. Certainly, the influence of Anglo-Saxon on modern English is massive.

Many American place names, for example, are reiterations or variations of British locations—and much British cartography speaks with an Anglo-Saxon accent. The British region of “Wessex,” for example, is a compression of “West” and “Saxony,” the German homeland of many an invader of England. The civic office of “sheriff” is a merger of two Anglo-Saxon terms: “shire,” jurisdiction similar to a county, and “reeve,” an antique term for constable.

The historical novel 1066 (1981) by David Howarth describes Anglo-Saxon England on the eve of the Norman Conquest; its political and social geography are full of these sorts of Germanic nomenclature. Another work of historical fiction, Sarum (1987) by Edward Rutherfurd, traces a series of British families from the caveman days of England to modern times, so one can see the makeup of surnames change during Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman eras. The name Porteus changes to Port and then to Edward Le Portier. The last iteration reflects a French influence. But the Latin roots of English are just as strong as the Anglo-Saxon roots.

Advocates of English as the official language of the United States emphasize the nation’s Anglo-Saxon tradition and ignore the rest of the ingredients in its linguistic melting pot. To try to “protect” English from its future Latin influences during this period of high Hispanic immigration would be just as futile as trying to separate English from its ancient Latin heritage. Any debate about English as a national language should begin with a discourse on the roots of modern English. This conversation should be happening in English classrooms across our public high schools as well as at political functions—especially now that Alabama law has sought to deputize its educators as agents of immigration policy.