Carrie Gillon: Hi, and welcome to the Vocal Fries Podcast. The podcast about linguistic discrimination.
Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa.
Carrie: I’m Carrie Gillon.
Megan: Carrie, a lot of things have been happening on Latinate Twitter that I have to share with you. At the Grammys when Bad Bunny was performing, the closed captioning described it in brackets as non-English.
Carrie: That’s it? Just non-English?
Megan: Singing in non-English, I believe were the exact words.
Megan: Yeah. This is just terrible because I’m thinking it’s closed captioning in Grammys. With the other people that are singing, I feel like perhaps they prepare it in advance for these things, too. They may have lyrics available to them, or do you know if…
Carrie: Closed captioning? Generally, no. I don’t know in the case of this though.
Megan: Right. Like a live…
Carrie: Yeah. Live things are nothing. [crosstalk]
Megan: Nothing, sure.
Carrie: Closed captioning is done at the time of, right? It’s not the same as subtitles which are done… you have a lot of time to do them and then you stitch them together, the two visuals together. Closed captioning, no, it’s done live.
Megan: You think it could have figured out singing in Spanish, right? I mean I feel like… [crosstalk]
Carrie: At least to… [crosstalk]
Megan: Say that it’s Spanish. Yeah. The part that’s going for my role is the non-English part. It’s creating this dichotomy between English and anything that isn’t English, which is what many Americans who speak English do. Whether or not they do it on purpose, or they haven’t been very thoughtful about it.
Carrie: I wonder if the closed captioners are just told, if it’s not English just say non-English and don’t guess, because what if you guess incorrectly? It’s Polish and you say it’s Russian or something.
Megan: Yeah. I don’t know. I do… but Spanish? This is why I’m wondering how much preparation or you know at least there’s a commercial break and they’re telling everyone that Bad Bunny is coming up. I feel you would know you could say, “Spanish”, or “singing in Spanish” or something.
Carrie: It seems very… What’s the second most likely language to be in this context? Spanish.
Carrie: Maybe you’re not a hundred percent sure and you think maybe it’s Portuguese but it seems unlikely. It seems very likely that you would think this is Spanish and you’d be correct. I don’t know. I really don’t know what they’re told, right? They might have [crosstalk] been told you cannot list the language just in case.
Megan: Yeah, absolutely. I have so many questions about… this is not me being upset or questioning the intent of even the individual people that are doing the captioning system. It’s the system where this is the best we’ve got for relaying this message.
Carrie: Clearly, there could be some improvements made, at the very least, trying to figure out what language is likely to be given the situation. They knew it was going to be Bad Bunny, [crosstalk] what language is it going to be? Probably Spanish or English, nothing else. Probably, right?
Megan: I just sent you a link to the latest SNL or the weekend of the Grammy’s SNL. That was the Grammy’s weekend with Pedro Pascal, and he’s a Spanish speaker and speaks English too, of course. In this SNL skit, Pedro is playing a protective Latina mom and there’s a lot of translanguaging happening, this code-switching if you want to call it the Spanglish, but pay attention to the captioning.
Did you see… we can pause here. Did you see how it does the in brackets speaking non-English again but managed to get, “Mama, por favor?” They wrote out por favor [foreign language], and then as the mom and the son were talking, the Spanish were just then completely ignored, and “Speaking non-Spanish” wasn’t used while they had some parts of English. They would caption out the parts in English without even saying, “Speaking non-English” in between.
Carrie: Is this one done by AI?
Megan: I guess because the captioning is done by YouTube.
Carrie: Yeah. It just can’t keep up. That’s why [crosstalk] when it was going back and forth between Spanish and English within a sentence it just can’t keep up.
Megan: This AI also does the speaking non-English thing, which is interesting.
Carrie: Well, I mean, that makes more sense, right? An AI is going to know even less than a human would, right?
Carrie: It is interesting that it did pick up a few Spanish things. It’s been taught “por favor”. It’s been taught “mama”. I mean, “mama” is in English too, actually [crosstalk] but it’s been taught “por favor”. We, English speakers, use por favor sometimes too.
Megan: It’s true. Especially if you’re in a certain part of the country in the US, if you’re in the US.
Carrie: Yeah, I just feel it’s a thing.
Megan: Por favor, more widespread.
Carrie: It’s really widespread.
Megan: Really? Okay.
Carrie: It’s one of those things that I feel every English speaker knows like a handful of French things that every English speaker knows and a handful of Spanish things almost English speaker knows.
Megan: Yeah. I do know “bonjour”, “un”, “deux”. By the time the Grammys were showing on the west coast, “Speaking in non-English” was replaced with an actual Spanish translation.
Megan: Oh, okay.
Carrie: I thought that was also interesting. That’s interesting, how’d they do that?
Megan: Oh, no. Okay. CBS adds Spanish closed captioning to replays of Bad Bunny’s Grammys performance.
Carrie: Oh, okay. Yeah.
Megan: During the initial live broadcast the captions only said “Speaking in non-English” and “Singing in non-English”. When he went up to accept the Grammy, his acceptance speech was partially Spanish, once again the captions only said speaking non-English. That too it comes up again later in the broadcast. Why is it still speaking non-English? Is there really just a strict rule that says you cannot… because at this point you know what’s happening. What language he’s speaking that’s not English?
Turns out it is generally standard practice for live closed captioning where the captioners don’t have the capability to quickly add translations. Speaking non-English is a catch-all for all languages and is built into the system.
Carrie: Yeah. I was right. It’s just what they do. What they’ve been trained to do.
Megan: Right. Then they say that although the lyrics for both of the songs that Bad Bunny performed are readily available, they don’t account for ad-libs or expletives. They may or may not be bleeped while doing something live.
Carrie: This is a hard job. Captioning is really hard.
Megan: Oh, sure. That’s why I’m not mad at the captioners. I think the point though, this article is also bringing up the fact that they should have been prepared because they knew what the Grammy schedule was.
Carrie: The very least they should have been able to say is Spanish.
Megan: Right. That’s what I’m thinking. My thought was, yeah, when things are live, they can go all over the place but when it’s the Grammys or any other show like that, it’s pretty scheduled, and so, what kind of preparation can we do? Again, this goes to the point of people that really need close captioning and you’re just not getting enough information. I guess the people that need the close captioning can assume that Bad Bunny is speaking Spanish but what if he’s trying out some French or whatever? I don’t know. Yeah, it’s not a complete picture for people who rely on close captioning.
Carrie: Right? Again, there’s probably never going to be a way to make it complete but to make it more complete. This is information [crosstalk] that would be easily added at the very least. This is Spanish as opposed to any other language. Then, on top of that may be if there’s any ad-libbing, we’re just going to have to ignore it but we’ll just put in the lyrics since we know what song it’s going to be. Maybe make a note like, “These are just the lyrics of the song, any ad-libbing won’t be added.” I don’t know. There’s probably a way to handle this and maybe going forward, they will. I don’t know. I’m hoping they’re thinking about it, at least.
Megan: No, I agree. Why aren’t we making more efforts to do things even if they can’t be perfect or…
Carrie: Yeah. Just try to do a little bit better rather than just not doing it at all. It’s an all-or-nothing thing. [crosstalk]
Megan: Yeah, exactly.
Carrie: I don’t think we should fall into it. We should always think there’s a small thing that we could do to make it better, and then later make another small thing as opposed to just being… [crosstalk]
Megan: Yeah. I’m not going to try.
Carrie: You’re not going to try or it has to be 100% perfect. No. There are lots in between there and let’s just try to get closer to better as we go forward.
Megan: Right. I’ll also say one more thing about it. There was an interview with Dr. Yada Mod Bonilla[?], sorry, if I’ve said that wrong. Who is a professor in the Department of Africana, Puerto Rican, and Latino Studies at Hunter College, and director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at
CUNY, and Bad Bunny’s Puerto Rican.
Dr. Bonilla says, “I think the audience was disappointed. Apparently, this is the standard practice when there’s not a multilingual person captioning to just write “non-English” if that’s what they hear. Folks felt like, okay, you’re making history here. For the first time, you have a Spanish language act nominated for Album of the Year. This is the largest streaming artist in the world. You know that he sings and speaks only in Spanish, do better Grammys.”
It’s just like the thought that I had too. There has to be some preparation put in beforehand, right? For all of these people just to prep like, “This is what’s going to happen tonight.” It’s not going to be possible, and it’s not going to be perfect all the time because maybe people throw in words from other languages that the captioner won’t know, but you did know what he was singing and what he was going to sing, and that it was going to be in Spanish. That’s the big point.
Well, they really learned an important lesson because this went viral very quickly. It’s all really interesting and Saturday Night Live, I guess the YouTube captioning system put the same thing. I guess now we do completely know it’s a standardized practice here, and Saturday Night Live is live too.
Carrie: Yes, Saturday Night is live but are these captions from that?
Megan: No, no. No.
Carrie: They’re from YouTube, right?
Megan: No, right. I wasn’t watching it live and I don’t use close captioning, so I wonder what it looked like there. I don’t know.
Carrie: No idea.
Megan: Probably similar if it’s standardized.
Carrie: Probably similar but probably caught more of the English words, and probably said not English more often.
Megan: When it was… Anyway, it’s all very interesting and worth thinking about all these things.
Megan: Again, it’s all about accessibility to people other than just English speaking.
Carrie: Or English reading.
Megan: Yeah. English-speaking, English reading. I think that’s a good intro to what we’re going to talk about today.
Carrie: Yeah. It’s a really fun episode and so charming. So charming.
Megan: Yes. Before we get to the interview, we want to remind everyone that we do have a Patreon. We have different levels or stickers, there’s a mug, there are bonus episodes, and you get access to all the bonus episodes we’ve ever done so far. They tend to be fun and salty. If you want to be a Patreon supporter, go to patreon.com/vocalfriespod. Yeah.
Megan: We’re so excited to have Ilan Stavans, the publisher of Restless Books and a passionate lover of dictionaries with a collection of over 300, now housed in his personal collection at the University of Pennsylvania. Wow, that’s awesome. He has published an assortment of books about language including Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language, Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion, Resurrecting Hebrew, and How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish.
He serves as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary and lives in Amherst, Massachusetts. Thank you so much for being here.
Carrie: Yeah, welcome.
Ilan Stavans: It’s a pleasure.
Megan: I’m so excited. I already mentioned this to you, but I’ve had you on my shelves forever. It didn’t say in the intro, but you’re also, I’m going hold this up for Carrie. You are the editor of the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature which is one of my favorite tomes.
Ilan: Oh, great.
Megan: You have a new edited volume out, The People’s Tongue: Americans and the English Language. We want to talk to you about that today, and I want to ask first of all, why did you decide to compile this and why now?
Ilan: Well, thank you again for having me on your podcast. I’m thrilled. I decided to put together The People’s Tongue for a variety of reasons. The first one is, as a publisher of Restless Books, we’ve been bringing out volumes devoted to immigration, to contemporary literature in translation for a decade. This is the book that is marking the 10th-anniversary celebration of Restless. I’m thrilled to be bringing it to people and as a parting cake to celebrate it with everybody as a statement of the effort that the incredible staff, the translators, the editors, and the distributors have all put, and have invested into this wonderful project, Restless Books, that is based in Brooklyn.
The second is because I have been an immigrant in this country for over 35 years. I am very grateful to this country in spite of all its imperfections and its challenges, and I wanted to give back to it. This a statement that reflects how the language I speak right now with you, the language that I have adopted and adapted from the environment is, I feel it’s mine, but I feel it’s in constant change.
In this anthology seeks to reflect to map out how the English language has changed for over 450 years from before the independence in 1776 to the present voices from all backgrounds. The indigenous, the immigrant, the young and old, teachers and politicians and activists and translators, and lexicographers. I wanted to create a symphony of voices that would explain and express the degree to which this incredible language that we have is in constant change and nothing is ever static.
Megan: Yes, absolutely, it’s true. You call English the people’s tongue. What do you mean by that?
Ilan: I call it the people’s tongue because when compared to many other languages, say Spanish which is one of the languages that I was born into, or French, Italian, Hebrew, or German, all of which have an academy. Like the Académie Française or the Real Academia Española de la Lengua that supposedly safeguards the language, and protects it. It’s the authority that legislates what is accepted and what is rejected in those languages.
In English, we don’t have an academy. We don’t have anybody telling us what words to use or what words not to use. Of course, we have teachers and we have parents, and we have dictionaries, but the language is ours, it’s the people’s tongue. We can choose to change the meaning of a word like the word “bad”. When I first arrived in this country, the word “bad” in 1985 meant bad. Then after Michael Jackson and many others, the word bad doesn’t mean bad. It means good.
Ilan: It’s something that we all decide to do unconsciously or consciously. It is for us to shape the future as we did in the past, and in the present.
Megan: I love that. As linguists and with this podcast, we really want people to know that language is always changing. I think it’s a new concept for a lot of people. What would you say to people that are grammarians, if you will, is this a way for them to see the language as something different?
Ilan: I would invite them to imagine a dinner table where Thomas Jefferson, Emily Dickinson, Zora Neale Hurston, Joy Harjo, and James Baldwin, we’re all sitting together and discussing what it means to be an American, or simply what it means to be human, at a different moment in time. The first thing that we would notice, if we were sitting at that table, is that the language that they use is very different. Each of them is employing the language of the time and space to which they belong.
Emily Dickinson would not understand the word “online” or “woke”. The same thing would happen with Jefferson or even with James Baldwin. There are many, many words that are jumping into our language all the time. They come from different corners of society, young people produce many more new words than older people who tend to be more conservative. Even though we always have a kind of base, a bank of words that travels across time, it is rotating. It is being renewed, the meanings get transformed,
and we come up with new words, and that is what makes the languages living languages. A language that is dead is a language that doesn’t lend or doesn’t borrow from other languages, that it’s static. You think of, I don’t know, ancient Greek or Latin. Those are languages that don’t need the word airplane or something for Chinese food or for Mexican food because they are frozen in time.
The beauty of the English language, though it is a colonial language that we received and was imposed on us, is that we haven’t been passive. We have been changing it constantly today for better or worse than in most jazzy and innovative language. It’s because of spoken word poets, it’s because of jazz musicians, singers, actors, translators, and so many people. Just people plain and simple, in the kitchen, in the yard, or playing baseball, soldiers, and workers. This is the language of all of us. I love the fact that I share these words with people who are no longer alive, and who are not yet alive, and I am a conduit from the past to the future the way all of us are.
Carrie: That’s great.
Megan: I love that so much. I’ve done a couple of interviews about the word Latinx and I get so much hate mail about this word because I said there are people that use it so we should respect that. Why do you think people are resistant to something like Latinx?
Ilan: It’s a good question and you will get from me also a controversial answer, not a hate answer. I think that the fact that we, in the Latino community, have different ways of calling ourselves is a statement of a community in constant change, information, or reconfiguration. We are republican and we’re democrat. We are young and we are not so young. We are recent arrivals as immigrants and we are Americans that have been here for a long period of time. We can be Cuban-Americans, Mexican-American, Salvadoran- Americans, Argentinian- Americans, or even Spanish or Iberian- Americans.
For a long time, the shifting names and categories have been a statement of how cohesive or not cohesive we are as a community. We have been the Spanish-speaking people, the Spanish people, Hispanics, Latinos, Latina, mestizo, mestiza, and Latinx. My impression is that Latinx is a statement of a moment where gender fluidity is very important. Where the “x” also comes from a background in history that announces the way that certain regions of the world, including Mexico, moved from spelling its name with a “j” in Mejico to spelling it with an “x” the moment it became independent in order to connect with the Aztec and the Wattle Pass.
In the early days of the Mexican Republic, the idea was that “x” was closer to mestizos than “j” which we were having from Spain and so we spelled Mexico, we spelled Texas with an “x” also, Texas in Spanish. I’m not so sure that the… it’s inevitable that in the Spanish language because it’s a romantic language, nouns have gender. A “B” is she, and I don’t know. A ball is a he, el balon [foreign language]. Trying to eliminate that or pushing it to a neutral stance, it’s controversial. I am ambivalent about it. Sometimes I think this is a wonderful thing. Language should not impose on us the gendered view of the world.
In other ways, it’s actually more often than not, I think languages are patterns. We can resist them, and we can transform them, but they also shape us and we can fight for gender and sexual fluidity in many different ways aside from language. On the one hand, respect the way languages are structured but I also love contamination and pollution [crosstalk] in language.
Carrie: I love it.
Ilan: I kind of go back and forth.
Carrie: Yeah. I totally get that ambivalence. Heck, yeah, I feel the same way, but I’m also not part of the community so it’s not really for me to say either way.
Ilan: Everybody who uses the word should have something to say, not only the community but I get your point.
Carrie: Yeah. How did you pick each of the pieces in this book?
Ilan: This was the product of a real nutritive dialogue with students. I taught a class called The Making of Dictionaries, where I post this question to the students. Do we really need dictionaries? Can we live in a world without anybody compiling words in between two covers and telling us, “These are the words that are accepted…” The moment you publish a dictionary, if you publish it in print, it is immediately useless. There are so many new words that are already being employed outside that did not enter that dictionary so we deep dive into the history of the many dictionaries in the English language and in particular into American dictionaries. How did the early founding fathers and figures like Noah Webster, try to distinguish the language that Americans were speaking in the colonies? Vis-a-vis, the ones in the motherland.
That generated all sorts of discussions. The students were bringing in poems and stories and fragments of novels, and then I was bringing in more. I realized that the question had pushed us to read and imagine the sequence of a tradition of who says what and how. This election was done ultimately by me, but with enormous gratitude to the students who were proposing Sojourner Truth, the statement of What Makes Me a Woman, The Gettysburg Address, and Tony Kushner in Angels of America. So many wonders… the whole point here is that language doesn’t belong to lexicographers. It doesn’t belong to anybody but to everybody that uses it.
There are astronauts here, and there are homemakers, and there are comedians. This is who is using the language all the time. That’s why I think the title that people strongest is hoping to bring forth that kind of a collective view of the real shapers of language, which is just about everybody who says something.
Carrie: In your intro to this, you quote Emily Dickinson, which is the perfect quote. Let me just find it really quick. “A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.” Why did you want to start the introduction with that quote?
Ilan: Emily Dickinson is my hero. I live two blocks away from where she hid for most of her life. She was this very short, very private woman who seldom went out of her house. We don’t really know all the complexities of her mental health and challenges, but she thought of poetry as a way to express herself, and absolutely revolutionized the way we look at language and the way we look at punctuation. The pair punctuation might be one of the most original things any American poet has ever produced.
Every time I go to the office, I pass by Emily and I imagined her bringing down a little basket of candy for the neighborhood kids who didn’t know her directly but would run to get those candies. I imagine myself in a dialogue with her. She published only a handful of poems during her life. She was very insecure about her poetry, but her poetry has reconfigured the way we do things. If I could have quoted her more, I would have quoted her more of this book. She’s quoted, as you said at the beginning, in the introduction, then there’s a section in the book itself as well. I don’t tire of just going back to Emily Dickinson’s poems. They are just superb.
Megan: Do you watch the TV show, Dickinson?
Ilan: I watch the TV show, I’ve seen the movies, I’ve read every biography you can imagine. None of them really captures her, but they are approximations. I like that she remains a mystery that we don’t really know who she was and that her poetry both reveals and conceals her dreams and her vision of things.
Megan: In this volume, you include everyone from Sugar Hill Gang, to Walt Whitman, to Dr. Seuss. Why was that important to have this wide expanse of individuals?
Ilan: I am a professor and I am very uncomfortable within academia. I think academia is, on the one hand, a superb opportunity to devote yourself to thinking and to research and to connect with extraordinary students, young, that will allow you to get the temperature of the world as it is right now. On the other hand, academia can be incredibly isolating. It removes us from the rest of the world and it’s pretentious, it’s arrogant, and I wanted to really delve into pop culture, into the lowbrows, so to speak, and the highbrow, just about everybody.
Richard Pryor is in the book and so is Lucille Ball but Noah Webster and many presidents and many so-called serious scholars of the language. I think it is time to break this unnecessary imaginary barrier between the so-called people in the know, and the people who supposedly don’t know. If you’re using the English language you know, and sometimes not knowing, so to speak, I put this in quotations, “gives you freedom”. Much more freedom than having to follow certain grammatical and syntactical rules because you learned this in class.
Megan: You mentioned how pretentious Academia is. This is very true. I’m a first-generation college student so I did not quite comprehend until I got there. In that same vein, I was taking Spanish in college and we were supposed to do a report. I said that I wanted to do it in Spanglish, which you’re very familiar with, and the instructor told me that I could not do that because Spanglish was not legitimate.
Ilan: What a shame.
Megan: This was really hurtful to me because I wasn’t a linguist yet and my dad speaks Spanglish, I grew up around it and this is [crosstalk] what I’m told. I just really appreciate you mentioning how stifling and isolating academia can be.
Ilan: Pitiful. It’s good also to be told no. When you’re told no and you have a fighting spirit, you find ways to say yes. You might come back five years later, the teacher is no longer in the classroom, you don’t know. You don’t have even an email but you are going to answer that question or respond to that now in different ways.
As you know, I love Spanglish. I think it’s exciting, it’s beautiful, it’s improvisational. It is what people speak and I think language is information always that way. They are the result of necessity. People use the words that they can and if somebody understands them the act of communication took place. Why limit that?
Megan: Yeah, absolutely, and it’s patterned. People call it lazy. There’s no lazy language for one thing.
Ilan: There’s no lazy language, there’s no broken language.
Ilan: All languages are either broken or fixed, depending on how we see them. Spanglish is anything but lazy. It has speed. It has power. It has energy. It has much more of those qualities than many other so-called standard languages. I feel that Spanglish is unstoppable.
Megan: I completely agree with you. I think it’s so beautiful the way that my dad speaks Spanglish. Every time I ask him… because I did not actually grow up speaking Spanish like that third-generation American kid.
Ilan: Of course.
Megan: I was the youngest grandchild so my grandparents were gone so I didn’t learn Spanish. When I asked him to define something for me or what’s the word for this in Spanish, he’ll always second-guess himself and it makes me really sad. As if he does not know the language that he was born into.
Ilan: He must be part of a generation that was told that if they don’t speak full-fledged Spanish then they have betrayed that language or they are inefficient, or they are handicapped, or they are whatever the term would be here. That creates a kind of psychological, not in your brain, that you are not quite authentic. You are not legitimate. It’s baloney. It doesn’t make sense.
Spanish began as Spanglish today by stealing from vulgar Latin, by incorporating elements from the environment. The high-brow pretentious professors and scholars were saying, “Either speak Latin or don’t speak at all.” Look, three centuries later, you have great masterpieces written in that language. It’s just in the shape of things and the tension between generations.
Megan: Yes, it’s a tale. Every generation, there are the same complaints over and over again.
Megan: Whichever language you’re talking about is becoming more and more barbaric over time.
Megan: Which of the pieces in this is your favorite or is that like picking a favorite child?
Ilan: It’s like picking a favorite child. Although you might have one, you will never say.
Ilan: You will keep it to yourself. I can tell you of many that I love. I grew up in Mexico and didn’t know Spanish when I came to the United States already at 25. Allison, who would, later on, become my wife, showed me for the very first time a Dr. Seuss book. For me, it was like thunder and lightning just taking over. The beauty of the language of Dr. Seuss, now we know the complexity of his own mind and certain stereotypes that he used of Chinese-Americans and Jewish- Americans during the second world war.
The beauty of Green Eggs and Ham, The Grinch, or The Lorax… when I went to the folks of the
estate, they would only allow me to use two or three lines because it is forbidden. I just could not have something by Dr. Seuss, but had I had the choice, I would have included the entire Green Eggs and Ham or the entire Lorax which is not that big.
I love it. It’s not a linguistic statement itself. It’s a political statement but I think the Gettysburg Address by Lincoln is one of the most superbly written pieces. Concise, direct, powerful, emotional, and lasting and I am an absolute student of that.
I included it in the book speech by President Donald Trump and probably that is the one thing he has written himself. Everything else has been written by others, and then, he claims that he wrote those books or those speeches. They are nasty, they are ugly, they are repetitive, but they are part of the language too, and he really pushed people in many ways with those. I think social media is an essential channel for language in either those in power or those without power. We all meet on our tweets and our Instagrams and reinvent the language.
Carrie: Yeah. The Trump one, I just had to laugh. Just so people know, it’s all of the insults directed at CNN in his tweets and nothing else.
Ilan: All of them.
Carrie: All of them.
Ilan: Without exception.
Carrie: All of them.
Ilan: All of them.
Carrie: It’s incredible.
Ilan: It’s an ugly exercise in real.
Ilan: I thought I have to subject the reader to read again. FAKE NEWS. Fake news! This is a guy who is hammering us with a single message and I have to also compress a little story here. After I put together the book, I started asking for permission and there were three or four very prominent writers whose names, I’d rather not mention, who said, “I’m sorry I am not participating in a book with Donald Trump.”
I had to make a case. I, who disliked Trump thoroughly, had to make a case that for better or worse, he’s using the language the way we’re using it too, and we need to get the whole panoply of possibilities here. Fortunately, all of them, in the end, said absolutely, it’s a good choice, etcetera. It was controversial at that point already.
Megan: I could see that. I could see that if I saw his name I would be worried. When you actually see the passages, you are like, “Oh, okay. “
Carrie: Yeah, and in the context of the volume, it’s important.
Ilan: Right. Yeah.
Carrie: For sure, it is.
Megan: Absolutely, I know what you mean. When I saw Donald Trump, I was like, “What is this?” Then I went, “Oh.”
Ilan: Is he a writer?
Megan: You say he actually wrote them and then you get there it’s Twits. It’s so amazing.
Carrie: It is amazing.
Megan: Knowing that Donald Trump is in here, and even thinking, David Foster Wallace who I always found really pretentious and hard to read. He’s in here.
Megan: All of them are so carefully selected, and you see why they fit together. What would you say to someone who’s a reader that would see a name and be, “Why would this be included?”
Ilan: I would say, be patient. Look at how it relates to other things, and maybe you will come to the same realization that I do. In the same words, in the same language, we can say hateful things and we can say endearing things, and it’s up to us to decide how we’re going to use it.
Megan: Absolutely. You have here, Richard Henry Pratt from Kill the Indian, Save the Man, Boarding Schools, and Killing the language of these indigenous children.
Megan: That’s in here. It’s not what you’re saying, “I endorse this.” You’re saying, “Here is part of the history of English.”
Ilan: Exactly, Megan. The history of English is the history of survival and oppression within the language. It is the silences that the language conveys, that are in the background. Of all those indigenous languages that have struggled to remain alive, some of them have been able to and others haven’t. It is the desire of immigrants to retain their immigration languages as they assimilate into the so-called melting pot or salad bowl or however we call it.
The language that we speak, English, is a colonial language. We inherited it. We have pushed it around. It’s very plastic, very elastic and we have added many new words, we have eliminated other words, but it is also a kind of cemetery of the sounds that have perished along the way. For every beautiful word that one hears, there are traces of other words that have made it in other languages, in other people.
What I wanted to do, what the students and I were doing is reflect that in presence of the language as a kind of stable and unstable field where there are ghosts who are talking to us from the past. They are yet unborn speakers who will say, thank you for this or this is unfortunate that you did this and now we’ll carry the language forward.
In the case of slaves, the slave trade, the case of the indigenous population, and the case of many who cross the borders for a long period of time until the 1950s, they had to live in a sink-or-swim reality. Where your father or your grandfather could not speak Spanish because they were told, “Go back home, go back to Mexico. You’re here you’re speaking only English.” Now, we’re more permissive, more elastic. We account for that transformation but this is not to say that it isn’t happening right now as well.
Every time, we use this language, it also states that we’re not using other languages. It’s a Darwinian world, the world of languages, where some survive and some don’t. There are approximately 7,000 different indigenous languages alive throughout the Americas right now and some of them only have two or three speakers. Will they survive? It’s a big effort.
On the other hand, the arrival of Spanglish, which is a new language, can generate a lot of discomfort among people because it is displacing English or displacing Spanish, or doing other things. The linguistic field is always tense. Always filled with kinds of bombs and explosions.
Megan: Going back to Donald Trump though, I’ve mentioned on the podcast before that I don’t like how people on the left say that he doesn’t speak good English. Or, he isn’t even speaking English because when we say something like that about Donald Trump, it doesn’t hurt Donald Trump, it hurts immigrants like my dad, people that have been historically minoritized. It hurts them, it doesn’t hurt Donald Trump.
Ilan: You’re absolutely right. One of the things that we have forgotten in this very divided moment in American history where we have dehumanized those that don’t think like us. This is very dangerous. It is very important to recognize that we are in a country where democracy is a messy affair by definition. People have different views and by dehumanizing them, we are dehumanizing a part of ourselves as well.
The voice of those that don’t think like us helps us shape our own views. It’s important to give them credit as important as it is for them to give us credit. I think we should start with language. I was writing for publication yesterday, it’s the article to be published soon. The difference between how Latino Republicans and Latino Democrats use the English language. It is dramatic. [crosstalk]
Megan: It is so dramatic.
Ilan: It’s so dramatic. You were talking about the Latinx that forgets that. I mean, Republicans will use Hispanic, and Democrats will use Latino, it’s as if these were totally different minorities. The conservatives will not like Spanglish, and the progressives will like Spanglish but only if it takes a certain taste or go in a certain direction.
It’s very interesting how we can demonize those that don’t speak like us but it’s very dangerous doing that because we are demonizing ourselves.
Megan: Absolutely. You’re so right. I’m so glad that you said that because I was like, “Okay, Latinos that are Republican say Hispanic.” I’m glad to hear someone else confirm my thoughts [crosstalk] on this.
Ilan: Yes, absolutely.
Megan: I’ve never identified with that word, it emphasizes the Spanish-speaking part of it.
Ilan: Exactly. [foreign language]
Megan: Again. I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish.
Ilan: On the other hand, I mean, it generates discomfort but Spain is half of what Latin America is or a portion of what Latin America is. We can’t negate it. It’s important to live with it and to digest that heritage.
Megan: Yeah, absolutely. Also Latin, it’s just the language behind it.
Ilan: The whole thing. I was also writing the other day about the fact that I’m sure that in your neck of the wood as well. Whenever somebody gives a speech or a sermon or opens up a kind of discussion, it has become fashionable to acknowledge that these lands were taken from the indigenous population and you list the indigenous population as it should be done. Very seldom, in fact, I haven’t heard it, does anybody say that the language itself that we’re using to acknowledge, that usurpation is a colonial language in the English language.
It’s not only that the lands were taken, but the language was taken as well. On the other hand, Walter Benjamin said once that in the history of any civilization, the history of barbarism was barbaric and civilized at the same time and those two sides keep on fighting constantly. Barbaric comes from the bare bears which were grouped that were perceived to be European, threatening, and undermining, the foundation of Greek and Roman civilizations. The word has mutated overtime in.
The fact is that we employ the term barbaric as a synonym for primitive, whenever we want to feel that we are more sophisticated than somebody else or whenever we want to endorse certain values. The language itself, it’s going to get… When we talk about, does a firearm kill people or is it the person who uses the firearm who is killing people?
The same thing happens with language, the same beautiful words can be used for very destructive effort. The word barbaric is a statement of that type of thing. The word barbaric is so interesting because of its history. There’s another part I want to say that I think is important. The book also wants to account for the language of death in this country and how death has been perceived as dumb, unintelligent incapable of who language. There is a whole parallel or concurrent debate within the book of the language of those that don’t use verbal language.
How they are perceived, how we perceive ourselves, and how we shape a tongue that can be through silences, through gestures and it goes back to the 18th century and 19th century. Some of these statements can be very demeaning today but I’m not including them in the book. I think it would be worse than including them and contextualizing them in the proper sense so that people figure out that we speak languages of silence and we speak languages of sound. We speak with our tongue and we speak with our hands and all that is communication.
Carrie: Absolutely. Without including things like this, which may be of their time, we don’t understand how we got to the point today where we’ve completely erased sign language from the conversation.
Ilan: There’s a beautiful piece in the book by Amy Tan that talks about how her mother who was an immigrant from China was always told that her English was incomplete. Yet, how Amy needed to serve as a translator for the mother when she would call the doctor or a tax collector, or what have you because the mother who could express herself felt inferior by being told all the time. That to Amy Tan became a kind of stepping stone to embracing the English language but rediscovering the Chinese of her mother, the tensions between progressive ways of embracing the English and also keeping the immigrant language with you along the way. I think that that’s very important.
I would say that the difference between the immigrant journey… this might be too broad and too general, but there used to be a time, as I was mentioning before when immigrants needed to cancel their own immigrant language, in order to become Americans. Now we’re more open to bilingualism and multilingualism. We realize that in the global economy, we need to have other languages and immigrants can be the engines of entrepreneurship in that sense.
We are much more committed to teaching foreign languages on campus than we were before. From Arabic to Chinese to Spanish, I think that is a statement of how the country has also been changing. I feel very moved when a student, who is a Latina like you, can recover her language. The language that wasn’t spoken at home and then feels very proud about it and passes it on to the next generation.
Ilan: That’s a wonderful statement.
Megan: Yeah. Just because I didn’t have a relationship with my father in Spanish when I was younger, we can still have that as I’m older now.
Ilan: Exactly. Yeah.
Megan: It might sound a little bit different but that’s okay.
Ilan: That’s okay. That’s part of the deal.
Megan: Yeah, exactly.
Carrie: I mean, every generation’s different anyway so you’re just different from other parts of the GenZ generation, that’s all.
Ilan: When you’re young, you’re the progressive. You are the one that is pushing things and eventually, you’re going to become old and you’re going to be the one that the younger generation is going to criticize.
We all play different roles in life.
Carrie: It’s true. It’s the circle of life. What a beautiful thing. Well, we’re running out of time here with you. This has been so amazing.
Ilan: I have loved this. I loved talking to the two of you.
Carrie: Thank you.
Megan: Oh, my gosh. Thank you. There’s so much in this that I could talk for hours. Is there anything that you just really want to convey to our listeners about this volume?
Ilan: I want to say two things. The first one is, as you read a volume that is an anthology, many of these things are just portals to take you to different places. If there’s a segment of a novel, you would be inspired to read the whole novel or to read more of the poetry of Dunbar or Emily Dickinson or any of the poets that are represented there.
The second is that I truly have loved spending time with the two of you. I love the kind of casual passionate way that you’re doing your podcast.
Carrie: Thank you.
Ilan: It feels that in and of itself is a statement of the language on how you use the language
Megan: Thank you. It’s definitely a labor of love here on the Vocal Fries.
Carrie: Yes, definitely.
Megan: We’re super cash. if we’re anything, it’s super cash.
Ilan: I can see that.
Megan: We always leave our listeners with one final message; Don’t be an asshole.
Carrie: Don’t be an asshole.
Ilan: Don’t be an asshole.
Megan: Thank you so much.
Carrie: Thank you.
Ilan: My pleasure. Be well. Continue doing that good work.
Megan: Oh, thank you.
Carrie: This month, we would like to thank Collin Kurta[?], for supporting us. Thank you very much.
Megan: Thank you so much. We appreciate you.
Carrie: We do. Just as a reminder, if anyone else wants to join, http://www.patreon.com/vocalfriespod.
The Vocal Fries Podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon for Halftone Audio. Theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at Vocal Fries Pod. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and our website is vocalfriespod.com.