The Common Good
August 2006

English, the One and Only

by Ed Spivey Jr. | August 2006

Elvis was perhaps our greatest English speaker.

In accordance with the recent Senate action that would make English our national language, I have decided not to write this column in classical Greek, a linguistic expression with which I’m more comfortable. (I just love those Greek letters on fraternity houses, although it turns out they all mean the same thing: “Beer inside.”) Despite this inconvenience, however, I am convinced that the Senate—our most deliberative body—knew what it was doing when it courageously recognized the obvious, and then acted forcefully to show it was paying attention.

In other prescient measures, the Senate also ruled that water is wet and that spinach sometimes gets stuck in your teeth and looks unsightly.

All that remains for English to become the requisite language of the land is for the House of Representatives—our least deliberative body—to approve the measure without requiring non-English speakers to be dragged from their homes and taken some place unpleasant. I’m not saying this would happen, but there’s something about the House that makes its members act a little wacky. (Which explains why the Founding Fathers originally called it the House of Doofuses, a little known fact.)

Tom DeLay, for example, was just a simple Texas exterminator when he came to the House of Representatives, and now look at him. He’s discredited, under indictment, and taking the last refuge of scoundrels: Jesus, whom he plans to represent in his new job as Christian lobbyist. In that role DeLay will be pushing a more biblical agenda on Capitol Hill, starting with more tax cuts for the rich, because that’s just what Jesus would do. (We know this because it’s right there in the Bible, someplace. Maybe in the back.)

ALREADY THE SENATE’S action is having a broad impact. As you know, Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction (we know this because the CIA says so, and they’re never wrong about such things). To distract attention from the nuclear build-up, Iran’s president wrote a long personal letter to our Reader-In-Chief, President Bush. And it was in English.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not send the letter in his native language because he knew that American translators wouldn’t get past his letterhead, much less the rest of his missive. (By my count, the Iranian president’s name contains no fewer than 16 consonants—all of which are silent, for fear of reprisals—and another dozen vowels. Plus, if you write it backwards it spells “Constantinople.” Twice.)

While his 20-page polemic compared our great nation to Satan—which would have been laughable had he not used some pretty persuasive footnotes—it failed to address an issue much more important to Americans: namely, that Ahmadinejad looks exactly like a young Bob Denver. (Skipper, after stepping on a rake carelessly left in front of his tent: “AHMADINEGILLIGAN!!” )

The Iranian president isn’t the only one to recognize the superiority of our native tongue. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the son of Mexican immigrants, has found his adopted language particularly invaluable when giving vague and circuitous answers at congressional hearings. English is perfect for this, since his native Spanish does not have a word for obfuscation. (“Obfuscanado” might work, but I think it’s also the name of that funky 1960s car with the pick-up truck back-end.)

And only in English could White House officials glibly announce that “when adjusted for inflation, gas prices are still at historic lows.” If you said that in any other language you’d hear the sharp barking laughter of non-English-speaking economists. But what do they know?

I WAS AT FIRST skeptical about being confined to a single language, since I frequently use the non-native “ixnay” when scolding wayward colleagues. But that was before I attended a high school opera recital, which for some reason they were singing in Italian. Or possibly German. Hopefully the new law will put a stop to this.

After all, opera is hard enough to follow (what with all the singing), and it took a kindly friend to explain that it usually consists of two major themes: spurned love—predominately by servant girls towards their employers—or abandonment by God. The latter was hard to believe in this case since the singers wore gowns and tuxedos. (If the guys had been singing in gowns, then I’d buy the bit about God abandoning them. And credit God for a great sense of humor.)

I have nothing against people singing their feelings in operas, or on high school dates for that matter, although I can tell you from personal experience that some people are less receptive to the latter. Elvis Presley—perhaps our greatest English speaker—pulled this off memorably when singing his love to Ann-Margret in Viva, Las Vegas!, a touching romantic film that showed the emotional bonds a man and a woman can achieve by singing at each other—at point-blank range—in English. But maybe that only happens in places outside the United States, like Nevada.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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