At the 2017 Modern Language Conference, I was part of a “Campus Chaucer” round table sponsored by the Chaucer forum. Thinking in terms of how current political debates are echoed in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales or erupt in our classrooms, Lisa Cooper (University of Wisconsin, Madison) spoke on the value of labor, Liz Scala (University of Texas, Austin) spoke on expressing diverse opinions on a campus with guns, and Nicole Sidhu (East Carolina University) spoke on sexual assault and trigger warnings.
Below is the text of my talk on English-only politics. It includes links to my referenced sources as well as to the assignments I discuss.
During the Republican presidential primaries, the eventual nominee and president-elect announced, “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.” Based on that statement and the subsequent rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign, I anticipate that right-wing champions will add to their arsenal a familiar shibboleth, English-only policies. Used to support nativist causes in the United States, English-only statements are already a standard part of anti-immigrant stances. For instance, this past Wednesday evening, NPR’s story about efforts to resettle Syrian refuges in Toledo, Ohio, included this impromptu statement from John Johnstone, a Navy veteran:
“If you want to come here and turn the United States into Syria, I’m against that.
“If you want to come here and speak English, you want to assimilate, you want to have a pizza, you want to have a beer, you want to eat a chicken wing, I’m all for it.”
For Johnstone, Americanness is marked by a constellation of recognizable behaviors—what one eats, what one wears, what one drinks—and at the center, holding these behaviors together is what one speaks: English. In this line of thinking, speaking English marks a newcomer’s willingness to leave old habits behind and to adopt new ways, even ways antithetical to religious beliefs protected by the first amendment. Unless English is spoken, a newcomer has not made the necessary sacrifices to be an American. According to English-only logic, what separates those worthy of being in the United States from those who are not worthy is the willingness to speak English, a willingness from which the ability to speak English is assumed to flow naturally.
The state of Connecticut where I teach, has demonstrated little previous support for English-only policies. From what I can tell, a lone proponent’s legislative efforts resulted in only one hearing at the Connecticut Assembly, and that was back in the 1990s. While the much of the country turned red in the past two decades, Connecticut has largely stuck to its progressive values. Conservative voices have been largely muted, and right-wing values have been kept under wraps. With the prospect of a new administration in Washington and a more closely divided state legislature, however, I’m seeing a shift in tone. Conservative voices have grown bolder, and more brazen right-wing bumper stickers (my primary index for comparative levels of discontent among the general populace driving up and down I91) have appeared on the backsides of vehicles in the seven weeks since the election. Now that I’m seeing increased numbers of “Connecticut Citizens Defense League” decals in rear windows—a more aggressive statement than it might initially appear when you remember the 2012 mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut—and the more overtly menacing “Come and Take It!” bumper stickers on the back of pickups, I wonder if I’ll start to see more “If you live in America SPEAK ENGLISH” on my daily commute.
Although English-only policies in Connecticut might have seemed far-fetched the last time I taught Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, those policies and the politics informing them warrant my courses’ attention this spring. And if this is true in Connecticut, it’s probably true in your state, too.
What is a Chaucerian to do?
First, no matter where we teach, we need to be aware of the ways Chaucer and other medieval English authors can be co-opted by nativist politics, a point Sierra Lomuto makes in her December posting, “White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies” for the “In the Middle” blog. Rooted in nineteenth-century nationalism and nationalist medievalism, white nationalism easily slides into unfounded notions of a pure English tongue worthy of its eventual global domination. According to this narrative, American English is the undefiled descendant of a language that sprang forth from the British Isles before dominating the world with its linguistic flexibility and semantic dexterity, absorbing bits of other languages without being tainted by the process. As we saw in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Chaucer and his work can be brought into the narrative when he is identified as the well-spring of a pure English language and the “father” of English letters.
Of course, with few exceptions, students enter our classes on The Canterbury Tales with minimal knowledge of Chaucer or the history of English. And most likely they are not burdened with false information co-opted by nativist politics about the ways medieval languages and literature embody a pure Anglo-Saxon ethos. Nevertheless, most have an opinion about English-only policies, an opinion often informed by their own relation to other languages. Although many of my students are within a generation or two of their families’ having immigrated to the United States, it has never occurred to me to discuss English-only policies or their opinions on the subject. In these changed circumstances, however, I plan to initiate a discussion early in the term and to approach the topic of English-only politics in two ways, each using the lens of translation.
The first approach works against the notion that there is or ever has been a stable English linguistic tradition, untouched by other languages, by emphasizing Chaucer as a translator whose works appropriate and embed multiple literary and linguistic practices. Using etymological exercises, we will also explore the essential plurilinguistic nature of English and disabuse ourselves of any sense of linguistic purity and homogeneity even in earlier, pre-global forms of English. Inspired by an assignment shared by Melissa Ridley-Elmes, I also plan to ask students to track particular French terms—such as curteisie, sovereynetee, vileynye, subtil, aventure, gentillesse, entente, and sondry—for their shifting semantic properties not only across the Tales but also through the centuries from medieval French to present-day English. These two exercises will help students grasp the benefits other languages have brought to English as well as the ways English speakers reshape those stolen terms.
My second approach takes an entirely different tack. Developed in collaboration with other faculty teaching Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales at universities with multilingual students, this approach centers on an exercise highlighting the bi-lingual / bi-literate expertise of students by using non-Anglophone translations of the Tales. Rather than seeing these translations as cribs for unsteady readers of Middle English, the exercise highlights the ways translations can reveal less apparent aspects of the Middle English text. Moreover, bringing translations into my classroom allows students to explore (for example) the difference between a Christian pilgrimage and a Muslim haj in the Arabic text, the discomfort with sexuality in the Korean translation, the celebration of sexuality in the Brazilian translation, and the avoidance of religion in the Chinese translations.
Even monolingual students are fascinated by the ways the translations help them see the Middle English text from a new perspective. This fascination is especially pertinent when translated words embody ideas that seem timeless and unchanging to the students. Although they may have never taken a pilgrimage, they assume all pilgrimages have basically the same purposes and make similar demands. When a Turkish translation embeds sexual attitudes similar to the students’ own, they are more open to hearing what it says about Muslim dietary practices. Most significantly, the translations help students see where the tale’s perspectives do not align their own: that the anti-Semitism in The Prioress’s Tale might be deeply engrained, that the misogyny in The Merchant’s Tale might not be an eccentricity, or that the piety in The Second Nun’s Tale might not be a medieval aberration.
Bringing The Canterbury Tales into contact with other languages—either through the etymology exercises or the non-Anglophone translations—provides students with the necessary knowledge to question the premises underlying English-only politics. Although I’ll probably reveal my thoughts on those ill-begotten policies, the class’s careful attention to Chaucer’s language and its engagement with languages past and present, I suspect, will do the work for me.