The first recorded apple pie recipe originates from 14th-century Britain. “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” a patriotic American song, is set to the tune of God Save the Queen, the British national anthem. The United States began as a group of 13 colonies of the British Empire, populated by British people, who spoke the language of their country: English.
Apologies for the brief history lesson, but these facts are important to keep in mind in wake of the controversy surrounding a seemingly benign Super Bowl commercial brought to us by the all-American corporation Coca-Cola. For those of you who haven’t seen the ad, it depicts people of all ages and ethnicities enjoying their culture and lives with the tagline “America is Beautiful.”
Heartfelt commentary on the diversity of our melting pot of a nation, right? Not according to some. The problem, in the eyes of the offended, is that the commercial is set to a rendition of “America the Beautiful” that is multilingual. Representatives, Fox News hosts, Rush Limbaugh and other naysayers immediately took to Twitter and radio waves, decrying the ad as thoroughly un-American for corrupting a patriotic song and suggesting the choice to sing it in different languages signaled to immigrants that it is unnecessary to learn English when moving to the United States. The ad also inspired mass tweeting of the hashtag, “#SpeakAmerican,” which was intended as a show of pride in the perceived patriotism of communicating in English.
There’s a myriad of problems with that hashtag, but here’s the major one: there is no such thing as “speaking American.” Contrary to what the virulent protestations against the ad seem to suggest, the United States doesn’t actually have an official national language. Furthermore, there’s certainly nothing innately American about English whatsoever, except that it’s the language that the immigrants who founded the U.S. spoke. According to Merriam-Webster, the English language originated in the 5th century in England, which happens to be the country the founding fathers were attempting to disassociate from when they wrote the Declaration of Independence. If the most important thing about our language is whether it’s “American,” it could be time to brainstorm some alternatives to English. Algonquin? Siouan? Iroquoian perhaps?
Maybe some of us have forgotten that, unless you’re 100 percent Native American, all Americans descended from immigrants who, in all likelihood, didn’t fluently speak the language of the native people when they arrived here. Jamie Bochantin, a communications professor at DePaul, shed some light on the mentality that leads to this troubling association of the English language with the American identity.
“Americans tend to be very ethnocentric as well as egocentric. When you’re egocentric, it means that you’re unable to take somebody else’s perspective because you’re convinced that your own perspective is the correct perspective.” Bochantin continued, “Americans tend to be diehard patriots, lots of nationalism. It makes us unwilling or unable to see other points of view, especially with regards to other languages or other cultures.”
Bochantin pointed to patriotism as the link between language and identity.
“If there’s generations of this national culture being forced down your throat, you begin to identify that way as well. It becomes a large part of your self-concept, which starts developing the minute you are born. By the time you get to high school and college, then you get to meet folks from other walks of life and cultures and so then you could have a shift in the way you believe or the way that you feel, but it is really hard to go against things that have been so ingrained in your psyche since you were a small child, especially that strong national culture.”
The American emphasis on tolerance and diversity is arguably one of the greatest aspects of this country. From that perspective, Coca-Cola’s commercial is more than American; it is a supremely patriotic celebration of harmonious multiculturalism.
And to anyone who has spent the past week fervently defending the ability to speak English as the cornerstone of what it means to “be American,” don’t worry. You can take solace in the fact that the English language is just about as American as apple pie.