A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

“When I Close My Eyes, I Like to Hear English”: English Only and the Discourse of Crisis

Amy Dayton-Wood, University of Alabama

Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/when-i-close-my-eyes
(Published August 10, 2010)

In recent years the United States has experienced an influx of Spanish-speaking residents and increased visibility of the Spanish language as multilingualism becomes the new norm. In Alabama, where I live, for instance, a push for English Only has attracted national notice.1 The campaign for English Only in the American South is not a new development but rather has endured for over a decade, sparking heated and often inflammatory rhetoric. This debate resembles Kenneth Burke’s metaphor of the “unending conversation”: it is cyclical and ongoing, and it never resolves itself but instead recurs as new speakers arrive in the “civic parlor.” These language panics are tinged with anxiety and marked by a sense of impending crisis even though, as James Crawford and other scholars have pointed out, official English policies have historically had little impact on rates of linguistic assimilation. Language panics can be considered manufactured debates in that they rarely resolve themselves, and the stated topics do not reflect the deeper cultural anxieties that motivate the discussion. In these rhetorical situations, exigence—the motivation or pressing need for discourse—takes on an additional importance as speakers face the challenge of convincing the audience that language matters.

This essay examines how speakers create exigence in a series of letters about immigration and English Only that appeared in the newspaper of a mid-size Alabama city during a two-year period from late 2005-2007. This set of letters is particularly effective at illustrating the recursive nature of debates about language because it is punctuated by two mini language panics, which were remarkably similar although they occurred independently of one another.

Each of these episodes began with a complaint about bilingual signage at a local big box store. The first letter provides an example of the inflammatory rhetoric that surrounds debates about language. The letter begins:

I went into Lowe’s today with the intention [of] purchasing some items for a home project. . . . When I walked in, I noticed that there were big signs hanging from the ceiling with the names of the departments on them. To my absolute amazement the names were in English and below that in Spanish. I was appalled. . . . Lowe’s doesn’t seem to know what country they’re [sic] in.2 (Davis)

Remarkably, this same complaint arose spontaneously in the letters section the following winter. Another resident wrote to complain about the bilingual signs at the Lowe’s store, concluding: “Spanish is not the official language here. . . . I don’t think that we want to follow South Africa, which has eleven official languages, Switzerland, which has four, or Canada, which has two. Therefore, we should pass laws making English the official language in Alabama and in the United States” (Gup). These two letters sparked vigorous discussion about immigration and English Only, topics that surfaced repeatedly over a two-year period as immigration dominated the local and national news.

While English-Only debates have occurred throughout the nation and received particular attention in border states such as Arizona and California, the Southern United States also provides an interesting context for debates about multilingualism because of its history of civil rights struggle and its situation as a nexus of twenty-first-century migration. An influx of Spanish-speaking residents throughout the 1990s and the 2000s has led to attempts to legislate language use in much of the region. In 1990 Alabama passed an amendment requiring that all official business be conducted in English. After the law was challenged, the state allowed some official documents, like driver’s license tests, to be written in multiple languages, including Spanish. In 2007 the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the legality of the multilingual license tests, but the state legislature has continued attempts to mandate English Only at the DMV (Schmid, Schildkraut). In addition to these local and regional developments, English Only was a frequent topic in the national news during the period from 2005-07 because of attempts to enact immigration reform in 2007; the new, federal ACCESS program that gave states leeway to pursue and detain illegal immigrants; and efforts by Congress in 2006 and 2007 to establish English as the official language of the United States.

The English-Only letters are an example of what John Trimbur has called the “discourse of crisis” that tends to surround public debates about language. This discourse is marked by emotional and dramatic language like that of the writer who felt “amazed” and “appalled” upon seeing the bilingual signs. Despite the intensity of the debates, Trimbur and other scholars have argued that these conflicts are not about language per se. Rather, language panics are manifestations of deeper social anxieties and economic tensions—or, as Trimbur sees it, “the ongoing crisis of the middle class” (293). The discourse of crisis serves as a rhetorical strategy by which citizens “renegotiate the terms of cultural hegemony, the relations between classes and groups, and the meanings and uses of [language]” (281). In other words, language is perceived to be in a state of crisis when it no longer works as a sorting mechanism to divide the haves from the have-nots. Like Trimbur, linguist Jane Hill also views language panics as stand-ins for underlying social anxieties, but she views race as the central issue that motivates linguistic conflict. She notes that public debates about language are marked by a lack of attention to specific, technical features of language, an absence that re-affirms the view that language itself does not motivate these crises (251). Moreover, there is a racial subtext to the discussion about minorities who speak languages other than English—particularly Hispanics. In contrast to Trimbur and Hill, a third explanation for the cause of language panics, from political scientist Deborah Schildkraut, is more sympathetic to those who support English Only. Schildkraut acknowledges that there are economic and racial tensions at play in these debates, but she believes that the crises are at least to some degree about language, insofar as many Americans believe that English is essential to the preservation of a common national identity. Schildkraut argues that there are both “bad” (racist or discriminatory) and “good” (civic-minded or motivated by the desire for a common public language) arguments for English Only.

In his book, The English-Only Question, Dennis Baron notes that throughout the twentieth century, the Official English movement has played out in recurring waves, “cycles in which Americans become protective and look inward,” particularly during times of mass immigration and social or economic unrest (5). This sense of unrest has been particularly acute in the post-Nafta, global economy of the South, where immigrants have become scapegoats to those who have been left behind. In a recent article in The Nation, Roberto Lovato argues that Hispanics in the South today face the kind of systemized discrimination that African Americans experienced under Jim Crow: “a matrix of laws, social customs, economic institutions and symbolic systems enabling the physical and psychic isolation needed to control and exploit undocumented immigrants.” As conflicts over the new immigrants play out in the public sphere, a focus on their language practices has become a way of expressing these social and economic anxieties. It also provides a forum for negotiating the relationship between language and national identity. Deborah Schildkraut has argued that the most compelling reason for the broad public support for English Only is that it is tied to beliefs about what it means to be an American (4). Therefore, the English Only debate often focuses on abstract ideals rather than concrete action.

When discourse arises out of an abstract question such as the relationship between language and identity, the interlocutors face the challenge of establishing urgency and convincing the readers that language matters. Of course, in any rhetorical situation, speakers must do their best to establish that discourse is necessary and timely. In his landmark article on rhetorical situation, Lloyd Bitzer refers to this sense of urgency as exigence: “an imperfection . . . a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done” (6). While he notes that exigencies can be “strong or weak,” “important or trivial,” Bitzer nonetheless treats them as part of a set of controlling factors that elicit specific, predictable responses. Subsequent theorists have proposed a more complex view of exigence. Richard Vatz has noted that exigencies are not rooted in objective reality but are subjective constructions of speakers and audience members. Vatz has argued that “political crises . . . are rarely ‘found,’ they are usually created” (159). The fact that our city has seen an increase in Spanish-speaking residents is not, objectively speaking, a crisis, but it becomes one insofar as citizens perceive a crisis and act on those perceptions. In “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents,” Keith Grant-Davie notes that like other elements of the rhetorical situation (audience, constraints, etc), exigencies can be multiple and subjective. He draws from statis theory to generate a list of questions that can help us understand the exigence in any given situation: “what is the issue?” (definition), “why should we address this problem?” (value, consequences), and “what should we do about this issue?” (policies, procedure) (266). This sequence suggests a multifaceted definition of exigence. In the analysis below I will use these three facets of exigence to examine how the English-Only letters establish a sense of urgency and create (or downplay) a sense of crisis.

To create a corpus, I started with the two mini-debates about the bilingual signs and then collected all the letters on immigration and English Only that appeared during a two-year time period surrounding these episodes. During that period from November 2005 through fall 2007, the Tuscaloosa News printed sixty-seven letters about immigration. Some of the letters were part of the discussions about bilingual signs in the hardware store while others were about English-Only legislation or immigration in general. Of those sixty-seven letters, thirty included a discussion of language as part of a larger argument about immigration while eighteen out of the thirty focused primarily on English Only. Other letters responded to national events such as Congressional attempts to pass legislation on immigration reform. In the analysis that follows, I refer mostly to letters that address linguistic issues, but I quote from a few of the letters that do not refer to language, mostly to illustrate the overarching themes and metaphors that the writers commonly invoke.

What is the Issue?

In Grant-Davie’s schema, he notes that the first way of understanding exigence is to view it as the issue or facts/definition at hand. To get a sense of how the writers define the issue, I labeled the topics of the newspaper letters and coded the letters to see how many topics arose and how often. Because some letter writers identify more than one issue, there are more topics than letters. The topic of language, naturally, is the most frequent, appearing in thirty of the letters. The other most common topics are national identity, which comes up twenty-eight times, as well as legislation and enforcement (both English Only and immigration legislation), which appear on twenty-five occasions. The economics of immigration/English Only and the perceived qualities of immigrants come up sixteen and fourteen times, respectively. Other topics include public health (as related to immigration), birthright citizenship 3, national security, race/ethnicity, dialect, local/regional identity, diversity, and hospitality/courtesy. Finally, meta-analysis occurs when writers critique one another’s rhetorical choices or logical assumptions or complain about the tone of the debate.

While the topic of rhetorical discourse often serves as the exigence, this is not always the case. For a topic to be considered an exigence, it would need to be an “imperfection” (to use Bitzer’s term) that requires rhetoric. And of course the letter writers do not always agree on the nature of the problem. To look more closely at the distinction between topic and exigence, I will consider the first “Lowe’s” letter and the series of letters that followed it. In the first Lowe’s letter (quoted on page 3), the bilingual signs are both a topic and an exigence—an imperfection requiring discourse. Two subsequent letters take up the topic of the bilingual signs but reject the premise that the signs present an exigence. One of those letters, “Spanish Signs are Smart Business,” reframes the issue as an economic exigence, noting that “whether they passed through the hands of English-Only speakers, bilingual speakers or those who speak Spanish exclusively, dollars in the cash register have equal value” (Weaver). Two additional letters make an argument in support of the multilingual signs based on the values of hospitality, courtesy, and respect for diversity (McGowin, Turner). One of these letters explicitly rejects the notion that the bilingual signs require further discourse, suggesting that the first writer should spend her time “looking for situations that cause a bit more outrage” (Turner). Those writers who disagree with the first author, then, advance the conversation by acknowledging what she perceives as the exigence and then dismissing that exigence or proposing others that trump it (diversity, revenue). A fourth letter, titled, “Lowe’s Signs Don’t Include Everyone,” defends the first writer, arguing that the signs don’t promote diversity because they exclude speakers of languages other than English and Spanish. This letter, which is more inflammatory than the earlier ones, explicitly invokes race, describing Hispanic immigrants as “unwilling to assimilate to our culture” (Du Puy).4 After Du Puy’s letter, two more letters appear in support of the bilingual signs, while one final letter opposing the bilingual signs quotes Theodore Roosevelt’s statement: “We have room for one language here, and that is the English language” (Champion).

This first set of letters about bilingual signs illustrates a few aspects of English-Only debate. The first is that writers do not always agree on the exigence (and this is true in all rhetorical discourse, not merely in debates over English Only), but exigence always provides the hinge on which future arguments will sway. A second observation is that the debate over English Only is marked by shifting, displaced topics and exigencies. The letter writers perceive very different exigencies: for one, the issue is the threat of multilingualism, another views the issue as the need for economic pragmatism, a few additional letters view the issue as one of courtesy or diversity, and a fourth identifies the issue as illegal immigration and failure to assimilate. The final letter, quoting Theodore Roosevelt, draws on the exigence of national identity as a rationale for monolingualism. As this “mini-language panic” plays out, the topical shift from language to the perceived qualities of Latinos reveals that nativist sentiments and race anxiety do motivate much of the support for English Only. Not all of the pro-English Only letters express anti-immigrant sentiments. (And by contrast, not all of the anti-English Only letter writers are entirely tolerant of Spanish speakers.) But by tracing the topical shifts as the debate plays out, we see that cultural anxieties that may not always be on the surface of the English-Only debate arise as the discourse unfolds, revealing the speakers’ underlying motivations.

If the shifting topics evoked in the language debate reveal the motivations of the interlocutors, so too do the metaphors they use. Those metaphors, when closely examined, support Trimbur’s assertion that debates about language are not about language. This becomes apparent when we compare the letters that portend to be about language to those that do not. Many of the English-Only letters draw on the exigencies found in the broader debate about immigration, using the same metaphors to describe the issues. Those metaphors include the image of language as a “germ” or “contaminate” and the figure of language as currency. In his research on language and immigration, Gerald O’Brien identifies a set of frequent images employed in public debates, such as: “immigrant as diseased organism,” “immigrant as object,” “immigrant as material,” “immigrant as invader,” and so on. One example of a letter that makes use of a common metaphor is a piece that does not address linguistic issues at all, an inflammatory letter entitled “Illegal Immigrants Are Unsanitary.” The author claims that immigrants cause salmonella and e.coli outbreaks in the United States because they lack “sanitary work habits, and many don’t wash their hands” (Johnson). This letter uses the metaphor—indeed, the literal suggestion—of “immigrant as diseased organism,” a metaphor that, in O’Brien’s analysis, evokes “fears of spread, contamination, and decomposition” (38). If we view the topic of the “diseased” immigrant as a metaphor rather than a literal claim, we see that it isn’t significantly different from claims that immigrants will contaminate our national solidarity due to their racial or linguistic “otherness.” Compare this letter to another one that argues: “Different languages and other ‘diversities’ divide, disintegrate, and eventually destroy nations . . .” (Hanchey). In this line of argument, language functions in the same manner as a disease or germ: if it is not native to the country, it is contagious and threatening. Using metaphor, writers shift the topics of the discourse, circling back to cultural anxieties about immigration rather than language per se, without appearing to have made a thematic shift. The overlapping metaphors used in debates about language and immigration provide further evidence that the fear of multilingualism is rooted in a more general fear of demographic change. When we trace the comments on language back to the discussion of immigration and contamination, we see evidence of the “manufactured” nature of the controversy.

These underlying sentiments of nativism and racial anxiety also manifest themselves in the second “mini-episode” which unfolds in a similar manner to the first episode. The first letter criticizes the bilingual signs, arguing that the United States will become less American (i.e., more like South Africa, Switzerland, or Canada) if it does not re-affirm its common language (Gup). This claim is similar to that of the letter that sparked the first episode, which claims that the Lowe’s corporation “doesn’t seem to know” that it is in America (Davis). Gup’s letter, like Davis’, generates several replies from people who oppose English Only and draw on the notion of “hospitality” toward non-English speakers as an exigence. These letters use another strategy that appears in the earlier set of letters, that of dismissing the idea that bilingual signs are an exigence at all. As one writer puts it, “We have a multitude of serious problems in this nation, but stores having signs in another language is not one of them” (Hess). Two subsequent letters on opposite sides of the issue take up the notion of national identity. One letter asserts that it is our “shared belief in ideals” that bond our nation, not a common language (Sawallis) while another letter asserts that “we are all Americans united in one common cause—freedom,” and “our language is English” (Hanchey). As in the first episode, the discourse about language eventually shifts to a discourse about race, with one of the writers arguing that ethnic identities, including “African-American, Spanish-American, Italian-American,” and so on, are examples of “differences [that] segregate people and divide nations.” As the debate plays out, the conversation gravitates toward nativist sentiments and expressions of race anxiety.

The recurring “Lowe’s signs” episodes illustrate the recursive nature of the English-Only debate. They provide examples of rhetorical situations that arise, generate discourse, and then die down for a time without ever really being resolved. Far from being unique examples (except in their striking similarities), however, these mini-episodes resemble other, less clearly defined moments that occurred throughout the two-year period as the discourse of crisis resurfaced.

Why Should we Address this Problem?: A Crisis Repeats Itself

If language crises tend to arise, play themselves out, and die down without resolution, it may be because the exigencies invoked in the debate cannot be solved via language policy but rather represent abstract ideals. The newspaper letters suggest answers to the second question that Grant-Davie poses about exigence: why should we address this problem? In this section I will look more closely at the exigencies that dominate the discussion about immigration and English-Only: economic arguments, race anxiety, and beliefs about national identity. I will also show how these exigencies take on particular resonance in the context of the deep South, where interlocutors draw on the history of economic uncertainty, linguistic variation, and civil rights struggle to fashion responses that are particular to the local context.

I argued earlier in the essay that because of the “manufactured” nature of language panics, writers face a heavier burden in establishing a sense of exigence for their arguments. One piece of evidence for the “manufactured” nature of English-Only debates is that exigencies are not particularly clear or distinct from one another. Discussions about national identity often peter out into arguments against ethnic diversity while letters that express fears over linguistic chaos typically express fears of social and economic unrest as well. Some of the letter writers make an explicit connection between language and economics, arguing that language diversity causes economic chaos. For example, one critic argues that

[Some citizens] continue to demand that official documents including ballots to vote should be in whatever language a citizen might desire; e.g., Mandarin, Spanish, English, Arabic, Bengali, Hindi . . . and over 7,000 others. I have a simple suggestion: pass a bill saying every financial transaction must be made in whatever currency a citizen might desire: e.g. Georgian Lari, Russian ruble, Albanian Lek . . . and over 250 others. If multiple languages are not more effective and efficient than a single standard currency like our dollar, then it’s highly unlikely that multiple languages of government and business will be more effective and efficient than our single language, English. (Boyett)

Pointing to the “efficiency” of both the language and currency, the writer suggests that language also is a kind of currency that enables cultural and economic transactions to proceed smoothly. By imagining a society in which citizens must sort through ballots in 7,000 languages or currency from two hundred and fifty nations, the writer underscores the potential costs of a multilingual nation.

Many supporters of English Only argue that multilingualism is a threat to our common identity as Americans. In his book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson has argued that a national identity is an invented construct. Nations are imagined in the sense that “members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their community” (6). A national identity works to unite large groups of disparate people by relying on shared beliefs, values, and cultural practices—and of course, a common language. When the letter writers envision their audience to be a distinctly national one—consisting exclusively of American citizens—they also construct an image of the nation they wish to address. This is the case with several letters published in May 2007 that respond to immigrant rallies that took place across the nation in May 2007. One anti-immigrant letter, for instance, calls on American citizens to recognize the problems posed by migration:

Immigrants, legal and illegal, cost American taxpayers $87 billion a year. . . . Illegal aliens receive $2.5 billion in Medicaid plus $1.9 billion in food stamps and free school lunches. . . . Bilingual programs cost over $28 billion a year because the children can’t speak English. If you’re wondering why the United States owes so much money and why your taxes are so high, I just told you. What, American citizen, are you going to do about it? (Stripling)

This letter’s strategy of appealing directly to an audience of American citizens has several effects. The first is to heighten the sense of crisis by suggesting that immediate action is necessary. The second effect is to link the issue of language directly to the problem of immigration, showing (if somewhat superficially) that by solving the “language” problem we can also address the economic problems of immigration. And finally, by appealing to the nation, the letter reifies the vision of the United States as a monolingual, racially homogenous space.

The citizens who suggest that a common language is essential to a national identity tend to assert that a homogenous racial identity is just as essential. In their view, immigrants’ language practices are a mark of their failure to assimilate into that homogenous vision of what it means to be American. In this line of thinking, the connection between language, nationality, and race are taken as self-evident. As one letter writer puts it, “America is a Judeo-Christian country. Our language is English. . . . Common sense tells us that a common language and culture unite us as Americans. . . . Although America allows for ethnic and racial diversity, the road to success is in mainstream America, not in ethnic or racial factions” (Mazur). The claim to “common sense” is a powerful rhetorical strategy in Southerners’ discourse on English Only, as Jane Hill has argued. The discourse of “common sense” works to disguise the cultural systems by which whiteness is privileged and those who are deemed “racialized” or non-white become marginalized.

The call for a unified national identity is a powerful rhetorical strategy for those who advocate English Only. But it is also a strategy that can be effectively co-opted by those on the other side of the issue. For writers who oppose English Only, offering an alternative national identity serves as a way to reframe the debate. One English-Only opponent argues that what holds our society together is not language but rather our common values. He writes:

[If English is really the common bond that holds our nation together,] then we should give ourselves back to England and learn “God Save the Queen” for the start of baseball games, because that whole 1776, “Liberty or Death” thing was just a colossal mistake we need to fix. Of course, I don’t believe that, and neither does [the previous letter writer]. We both know that what holds us together is our shared belief in . . . liberty, representative democracy, majority rule, minority rights, rule of law, and trial by jury. (Sawallis)

By implying that language is an arbitrary mark of nationality rather than an essential tool for transmitting cultural values and beliefs, Sawallis rejects the exigence of preserving a national language and instead focuses on the principles that shape our collective identity.

Although many of the writers—on both sides of the debate—view English Only as an important national issue, they also negotiate the role of language in the particular context of the Southern United States. In fact, one of the central tensions in this debate is the conflict between the local and the national. Some writers directly address this tension, focusing on their local context and writing to that audience. Like the idealized nation, the “local” is a contested space defined by those who occupy it. Many letter writers struggle to balance their identities as Southerners and as Americans. One writer who supports English Only, for instance, challenges former President Bush, who in a 2000 campaign speech celebrated the nation’s increasing multilingualism:

Before an audience of Hispanic voters at Florida International University in 2000, [Bush] said, “My party has made a choice to welcome the new America.” He went on to assure his audience, “just go to Miami, or San Antonio, Los Angeles . . . and close your eyes and listen. You could just as easily be in Santo Domingo or Santiago.” It’s time Americans open their eyes to see what’s happening to our old America, and the changing demographics whereby European Americans . . . who have mainly spoken English for over 200 years, and to be reduced to minority status and our political, social, and economic influence greatly diminished in the coming years and where in the name of . . . [conformity] to the new national religion of multiculturalism, we’re actually supposed to look forward to this so-called New America [sic]. I don’t know about President Bush, but when I close my eyes here in Holt, [a rural town in west Alabama,] I like to hear English and feel I’m home in my own country. (Hallman, “Not Looking Forward to the New America”)

The line, “when I close my eyes here in Holt,” reminds readers that the issue is not only a national concern but a local one. By pointing to the particular, idealized context of rural Alabama, this writer draws a distinction between the national trend toward multilingualism and a local resistance to linguistic change.

Regardless of their views on immigration and English Only, by taking their local audience into consideration, the letter writers attmept to unite readers on a particular concern: the need to protect the image of the South and to improve the standing of the region. By transforming their conception of audience to focus primarily on Southerners, some opponents of English Only manage to reframe the debate. While a national audience may have little interest in the image or culture of the South, a Southern audience can be united around such a local exigence, as one writer recognizes. He reminds readers that “Attitudes of intolerance are exactly the reason why Alabama and the majority of the South are branded [as] ignorant and racist. . . . This is the USA. America—the land founded by immigrants, and built up by their children. . . . Intolerance stems from ignorance. I suggest we change our attitudes and views, not the [bilingual] signs” (Sanders). By calling attention to the history of civil rights struggle in the South, the writer promotes language tolerance as a method for improving the region’s standing and suggests that readers reconsider the image they want to promote. Grant-Davie has noted that as rhetors negotiate the terms of discourse with their audience, they may “invite audiences to accept new identities for themselves, offering readers a vision not of who they are but of who they could be” (272). In this case, the letter writer invites an audience of Southerners to take on a new identity, one that extends not only to those individual audience members but to the region as a whole. By focusing on the local, the writers draw upon a special exigence: the desire to preserve the culture of the region and to shore up its status.

An emphasis on the local is particularly effective at uniting citizens of the region against those outside the South who stigmatize it. Like the immigrants who are criticized for the public use of Spanish, Southerners too have often found themselves judged for their distinctive uses of language. One letter writer skillfully exploits this common bond in a satiric letter that purports to support English Only while pointing to the futility of any attempt to eliminate other languages from the public sphere:

English should be declared our national language. We should also create a division in the Department of Homeland Security to guarantee the protection and purity of the English language. We could outlaw all speech, signs, and product instructions in nonofficial languages. To further preserve our heritage, we could criminalize those who defile our beloved English language by using poor grammar, misspellings and mispronunciations. Tickets could be issued to people at local malls who say “ain’t” and “ya’ll.” At grocery stores, officers could listen for “poke chops” and “nanners.” And let’s not forget want ad police to root out those with chester drawers for sale or rental property in quite [sic] neighborhoods. (Bowdon)

By pointing to grammatical features such as “ain’t” and “ya’ll” and pronunciations like “poke chops” and “chester drawers,” this writer explicitly references the various nonstandard aspects of Southern regional dialects (both “white” and “black” Southern Englishes). By doing so, he reminds Southern readers that they too are speakers of a nonstandard dialect, one that is integral to Southerners’ identity. Of course the irony of some of these nonstandard Southernisms stems in part from their lack of authenticity. It is not clear whether Southerners actually use words like “chester drawers” and “nanners” in their natural speech, but by using these examples, the author emphasizes their regional distinctiveness while simultaneously echoing outsiders’ perceptions of the South. In English with an Accent, Rosina Lippi-Green has argued that “a southern accent lies at the heart of much of anyone’s construction of the south” (208). In the mainstream media and popular discourse, Southern dialects are associated with illiteracy and lack of education. Lippi-Green suggests that maintaining a cultural divide and insisting on its own separateness is one strategy by which the South attempts to resist language subordination and discrimination. It is also the method by which some Southerners attempt to create a space for language change and linguistic diversity.

Conclusion, or what is to be done?

The third step in Grant-Davie’s sequence of questions for analyzing exigence has to do with action: what is to be done? In this analysis of the English-Only letters, however, there has been little discussion of this third question—primarily because the corpus of letters offers few insights on actions that might be taken in response to anxiety over language use in the South. Of course, many of the letters do call for legislative or communal action. For instance, implied in the two initial “Lowe’s” letters is the suggestion that we should take down bilingual signs and pressure local businesses to adopt a monolingual model. A few letters suggest that we take away funding for bilingual programs (a move that, ironically, would work against the goal of creating a monolingual public sphere), and a few call for Congress to pass an official English act. For instance, U.S. Senator Spencer T. Bachus chimes in to advocate for an English-Only bill, arguing that “the first essential step in addressing illegal immigration is the declaration of English as the official language of the United States." But the letters calling for English Only are overwhelming concerned with an abstract ideal of the English language—not the pragmatic consequences of the law. Ultimately, the lack of any substantial discussion about how we might effect linguistic change, or what the consequences might be, offers further evidence that those who participate in the ongoing debate are not as concerned with action as they are with ideals and values.

The “unending conversation” of the newspaper letters shows how discourse about English Only crops up periodically in the public sphere, providing an opportunity for cultural anxieties to play themselves out in recursive cycles. For the most part, it is a symbolic debate, since immigrants have continued to learn English at a consistent rate throughout the last century. But a closer look at the discourse of crisis reveals some important insights, particularly the way in which language works as a “code” or symbol for underlying issues of economic anxiety and racial insecurity. It also reveals the extent to which both our national and our local identities can provide rhetorical loci for arguments about language. The letter writers, while concerned about national developments, are less interested in what multilingualism means for the nation and more concerned with what multilingualism will mean in our city in western Alabama. Nonetheless, they participate in this local debate by drawing on the larger cultural themes of nationhood and by considering the role of language within that nation.

Analyzing newspaper letters is not likely to lead us to a solution to the problems of illegal immigration and anxiety over language change in the United States. Although some of the letters cited in this analysis are inflammatory, and others are explicitly racist, my purpose has not been to reveal this racism or even to consider the pros and cons of English-only legislation. Rather, my purpose has been to show that the rhetorical situation surrounding English Only is constructed in such a way that makes inflammatory language more likely. When citizens are caught up in rhetorical crises about broad ideals such as “the American way of life,” they lose the opportunity to have more nuanced, thoughtful discussions about the merits of multilingualism versus monolingualism or about practical solutions for helping non-English speakers participate in public life and, eventually, learn a common language. In fact, some members of the newspaper debate observe this problem, offering a meta-analysis on the debate that illustrates what is at stake. As one person put it, “I feel compelled to respond to recent angry letters. . .because I regard them as unthinking, emotional reactions to a pressing issue that requires reason to achieve any positive outcome. . . . There is no room for demagoguery that poisons the discussion with falsehoods and encourages bigotry and racist extremism” (Schwab). Ultimately, it may be more meta-analysis that is needed, not merely in scholarly essays but in public forums as these debates are playing out. Concerned citizens should hold one another accountable for engaging in discourse that will further the conversation and lead to real solutions rather than creating scapegoats and displacing cultural anxiety onto the figure of the new immigrant.

By rejecting a sense of crisis and instead, reframing the debate to focus on the role of language and identity in the South, those who oppose English Only may have found the best possible means for persuading an anxious audience to rethink its stance on multilingualism. The South is a region in transition, where social and economic change has created an important rhetorical moment. Such moments, I have argued, are constructed through national and local lenses and constrained by both. When speakers envision their rhetorical situations, they are also imagining their communities and creating idealized visions of place. Such visions can serve as a justification for reactionary policies on one hand or a push for social progress and equality on the other. In the twenty-first century, the South may become a hotbed for linguistic change due to its status as a cultural contact zone, where a new multiculturalism and multilingualism have arrived and taken root.

  • 1. Most notably, Tim James, Republican candidate for governor, ran a primary race based primarily on the promise to restore English Only to Alabama.
  • 2. With the exception of a few edits for clarity and brevity, all quotes are reproduced exactly as they appeared in the paper, with mechanical errors intact.
  • 3. The term “birthright citizenship” refers to the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing that all persons born in the United States are citizens.
  • 4. Those other residents include German speakers, who are clustered in communities throughout western Alabama due to the arrival of Mercedes Corporation in the 1990s. Those German immigrants are rarely targeted in the local media and in fact, are held up as examples of model immigrants—yet they also speak German in public and have set up special school programs to teach the German language and culture to their children. The contrast between public views of the German- versus Spanish-speaking immigrants provides additional evidence that the controversy over Spanish has little to do with language and is instead a manifestation of racial and economic anxiety. The German immigrants, largely middle-class, white-collar workers, are credited with bringing economic advancement to the region and therefore are not likely to be viewed as a threat to the jobs of the working class.

14 July 2006: n.pag. Web.