The Classist and Racist Origins of Standardized American English

U.S. independence was a time of great excitement and uncertainty. The U.S was a pioneer in developing a new form of government based on the latest ideas emerging from the European Enlightenment. It was a government that promised to be by the people, for the people, and of the people.

In my latest article Creating republican machines: Language governmentality in the United States I use the framework of governmentality (explained here in a previous post) to argue that this shift toward democracy should not be understood as eliminating relations of power. Instead, this shift should be understood as a shift toward a new political rationality designed to produce governable subjects to fit the needs of a rapidly industrializing and diversifying society.

Using a metaphor originally proposed by early U.S educator Benjamin Rush I call this these new governable subjects republican machines.” People could no longer be explicitly coerced into doing things by decree of the king. Therefore, they had to be molded into republican machines who were able to regulate their behavior to conform to the ideals of the newly emerging U.S society.

Language was a key element in the production of these republican machines. It was through the circulation of American novels, newspapers and magazines that a “pure” American identity was formed–an identity believed to reflect the democratic spirit of the new nation. This American identity, emerging from the language and literacy practices of the emerging American bourgeoisie, was then deemed to represent the authentic voice of the American people–a voice that all Americans should model themselves after.

Education was also a key element in the production of these republican machines. The Common School Movement–the precursor to the modern American public school system–had as one of its major goals the instilling of this authentic voice among the masses. Ironically, the democratic language of the American people was imposed on the masses through authoritarian teaching practices, harsh disciplinary procedures, and rote memorization.

One of the prominent leaders in developing and imposing this language on the masses was Noah Webster. In his writings he made the case for a pure American language that expresses the democratic spirit of the American people. Yet, a close reading of his work reveals that he believed only White male property owners with little interaction with foreigners  had the capacity to express this democratic spirit. Therefore, it was only their language practices that had any relevance for creating an American identity.

Webster made his lifelong project an effort to compile the language practices of this select group of people and ensure that all Americans spoke this way. He saw education as key to teaching this American language to the masses. In fact, he made it his mission to bring this language into schools, first as a school teacher and then through the creation of a speller which he described as “designed to introduce uniformity and accuracy of pronunciation into common schools.” By the 1850s, Webster’s  pure American language was infused into the teacher-centered patriotic and moral curriculum and pedagogy of the Common Schools. Any person who was truly educated was expected to speak this pure American language and anybody who did not was deemed as less American.

As Webster’s ideas about developing a pure American language were taking hold there was an influx of immigrants from Europe alongside a Great Migration of freed slaves to northern cities. Because of fear of foreign contamination, Mid-Western speech patterns became seen as the geographic origins of a pure American language. Webster’s successors sought to compile the language practices of the mid-West into what we would eventually know as modern Standardized American English.

The consequences of all of this are still felt today. For example, SI Hayakawa, a founding leader of the English-Only movement, argued that Standardized American English represents the unique democratic spirit of U.S society. To be a true American one had to adopt this language. He also builds on the racial undertones that were infused into Webster’s work to argue that Latinos are a threat to U.S. society because of a perceived refusal to master this uniquely American language.

Yet, the same assumptions can also be found on the other side of the debate. Opponents of the English-Only movement accept the basic premise that all should master Standardized American English. Where they differ is that they also believe that knowledge of other languages can be beneficial to maintaining US dominance in the world.

Many might argue that the need to learn Standardized American English is the harsh reality and that not accepting this basic premise is counterproductive. Perhaps this is the case. But what if it isn’t? Is it possible to imagine a form of activism that doesn’t take an idealized standardized language as a necessity for participating in society? What would this type of activism look like? What politic tactics would it make possible? How can we work to create these spaces in our classrooms?

These are questions that I raise in this article that I hope to answer in my future work. I would love to hear other’s thoughts on this.

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