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Americans and the English Language

edited by Ilan Stavans

Pub Date: Feb. 14th, 2023
ISBN: 978-1-63206-265-9
Publisher: Restless Books

Stavans brings together poets and presidents, rappers and novelists to show how language has shaped, and been shaped by, American culture.

Language has always demonstrated the power to both unite and divide, sometimes simultaneously. It is also a field of remarkable richness, as this collection of essays, poems, speeches, and song lyrics shows. Stavans, a Mexican American author and academic, presents a broad spectrum of material, from the Pilgrims to the age of Twitter, tracking the evolution of American English. For a significant period of time, particularly in the early days of the republic, a common language was seen as necessary to hold a country of immigrants together. Despite numerous attempts to standardize the language, the strength of American English has always been its capacity to absorb new words and phrases. One major debate involved the role of patois in Black communities, which drew on slavery-era roots: Was it a way to assert independence or a reinforcement of negative stereotypes? This argument would continue for decades, although James Baldwin’s 1979 essay, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Tell Me What Is?” (included here) was a powerful statement for the legitimacy of Black language. A similar theme emerged from Spanish-background writers: How can unity and diversity be balanced within a framework of language? Stavans’ piece on Spanglish points to one path forward. While he acknowledges that America is now in “a time of passionate philological belligerence,” as the particulars of language seem to be driving people apart more than bringing them together, Stavans might have offered more material about the impact of social media’s acronyms and contractions on language development. Nevertheless, the book provides a sweeping historical narrative and solid context for further discussion. Among the many notable contributions are pieces from Sojourner Truth, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Richard Rodriguez, Toni Morrison, Joy Harjo, John McWhorter, and Kendrick Lamar.

A useful resource for the classroom and anyone interested in the history of American English.