A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1817
May 16, 2016

SPEAKING IN TONGUES

MONTPELIER – I was just kind of maundering through a typical Sunday – breakfast, church, lunch, a little grocery shopping for supper, some time on the Internet, and a walk in the hills of our local park – when a series of impressions coalesced into a perception. It’s the sort of thing that happens naturally to somebody who’s got to come up with an opinion every week.

The background was the media’s frequent focus on the improbable proposals of Donald Trump: constructing an impregnable wall between the United States and the Estados Unidos Mexicanos (and billing the cost to the Mexican States); shutting off all immigration of Muslims to the United States (including, presumably, returning US veterans faithful to the Prophet); and, to make America great again, bringing back jobs (this from the guy who has his clothing, including his campaign caps, manufactured in China). There’s no acknowledgment in any of these notions of the role of Congress in these initiatives. They’re bizarre; but with the probability of Trump’s becoming the Republican nominee, they haunt the horizon of my daily ruminations.

While I was thus engaged, and exploring the aisles of the supermarket to satisfy Mother’s shopping list, I paused for a moment to help a woman in an electric cart reach a tub of cream cheese on a high shelf. I couldn’t help but notice the warning on the cart: “No children in basket,” and just beneath it, “No niños en la canasta.”

“Hmm,” I thought. “Isn’t that neat: a safety message to folks who may not read English, and a chance for the rest of us to get a peek at Spanish.” I always read the different-language instructions in owners’ manuals and on household supplies. My indoor rower, for example, has parallel instructions in no fewer than twelve. I can handle most of ‘em, but Chinese and Japanese remain inscrutable. And you never know when you might want a paper tissue (mouchoir de papier) in the middle of France, or if shopping for groceries in a European supermarket, you might need to know what Keine Kinder im Korb or pas d'enfants dans le panier means (see above).

Many of my fellow Americans, especially those who self-identify as “patriots,” take a dim view of multilingual conversations, notices, signs, and instructions. Sarah Palin, one of the leaders of the national nativist movement currently in vogue, said recently in a CNN interview that anyone who wants to live in the United States should “speak American.”

Let’s not forget the kerfuffle that arose on social media not long ago when the Vermont Legislature took up the proposal by a 15-year-old freshman at Lyndon Institute to adopt a Latin-language state slogan based on a 1785 Vermont coin. One Facebook poster wrote, “We are thousands of miles from a Latino border? and this makes sense WHY? NO we should not!” Another: “ABSOLUTLY [sic] NOT!!!! sick and tired of that crap, they have their own countries."

What got me going on all this, as I trekked the aisles in search of the items on the list – it’s almost impossible to shop from someone else’s list – was the reading in church from the Acts of the Apostles. The apostles were gathered in a house, when suddenly a great wind filled the place, followed by tongues of fire, one of which rested on each of them. [They] began to speak in other languages....Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And... each one heard them speaking in the native language of each....Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.

What’s so striking about this first reported incident of ecstatic glossolalia is the number of Jews from different parts of the Empire living in Jerusalem. Probably they communicated with each other imperfectly – Hebrew might have bridged the gap – but under the Roman thumb and the discipline of the Temple they presumably cohabited relatively peacefully.

The Romans, however, like us, couldn’t be bothered to learn the languages or customs of the inferior people they governed. They were a dominant culture; their language was used all around their empire; and now it isn’t used at all. You may recall the conversation in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, wherein a107-year-old man living in an Italian whorehouse reveals the secret of survival.

“You see, Italy is a very poor, weak country and that is what makes us so strong, strong enough to survive this war and still be in existence, long after your country has been destroyed.”

The United States, thanks to incredibly abundant natural resources, the longtime protection of two oceans, the energy and intelligence of immigrants (we always get the best), and a constitution that’s a work of pure genius, has become the planet’s currently dominant nation. But through all the years of our history has run the fear that, as Satchel Paige put it so memorably, “Something might be gaining on you.” There are two ways to react to that fear.

One way is to welcome the energy and diversity of newcomers; the other is to make it more difficult or impossible for them to settle here. We denigrate the newcomers among us at our peril. If we’re too lazy to learn their languages and sensibilities, we fertilize the seeds of the ignorance that leaves us defenseless against the changes that are already upon us. A little less chest-beating and  a lot more listening would serve us very well. </div>

Photo by Willem lange