Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Gingrich put in his place on "ghetto language"

Updated 3:37 am, April 4: We here in Verb City, an actively multilingual place, haven't spoken up about Newt Gingrich's recent tirade about "language of the ghetto". I just didn't have much to say that the real linguistics blogs hadn't said better.

At Language Log, Ben Zimmer argues that Gingrich came to use the word ghetto here because he was drawing on the language of the English Only movement, which has long preached the dangers of 'linguistic ghettos'. This is extremely plausible, given Gingrich's longtime commitment to the harshest rhetoric of English Only. James Crawford's fine and thoroughly accessible little book At War with Diversity: US language policy in an age of anxiety (Multilingual Matters, 2000) quotes and discusses Gingrich extensively on this general subject from the mid-1990s, when he was saying, in essence, the same things as he's saying now, down to railing against ballots in languages other than English, and calling bilingualism a threat "to the very fabric of American society". I don't have the stomach to read Gingrich's book from then, To Renew America, but it sounds like he's laid it all out there. He probably just garbled a formulation, as he's wont (or maybe wanton) to do.

But Gingrich, never somebody able to avoid picking at scabs on his self-inflicted wounds, has managed to blast off yet another digit with the same gun. (See transcript and video here.) He insists that because he hadn't said 'Spanish-speaking', he wasn't actually talking about Spanish-English bilingual education (so, what's the threat, Selkup-English bilingual ed? Rusyn-English?), and he now tries to give the impression that he was alluding to historical Jewish ghettos. (The link above has this title: "When I Said ‘Language Of Living In The Ghetto,’ I Meant Hebrew (Or Maybe Yiddish)." And when it comes to immigrant languages in Italy, those Etruscans sound scary, too.)

Jeffrey Feldman has nailed the former history professor (I believe he was denied tenure at West Georgia College) on the history of language and ghettos, here.

Once again I'm left wondering how in the world anybody ever took him seriously.

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