American Literary History 13.4 (2001) 776-788
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"Every time the question of the language surfaces," wrote the Italian political thinker Antonio Gramsci, "it means that a series of other problems are coming to the fore: the formation and enlargement of the governing class, the need to establish more intimate and secure relationships between the governing groups and the national-popular mass, in other words to reorganize cultural hegemony" (183–84). Gramsci’s statement is well known because it encapsulates how questions of language are often political, how questions of national language highlight the power structures by which minority groups are coerced into, or actively give consent to, a dominant culture. Less emphasized, however, is Gramsci’s sense that an "elevation out of the dialects into a common monolingualism" (167), as his editors put it, was both a necessary and progressive process. Gramsci’s ideas should be considered in context—debates over education and class in interwar Italy—but they have wider relevance, for they illustrate the profound appeal of the belief in the necessity and benefit of a dominant, common language to secure a coherent, healthy nation.
Although countries such as France and Italy have mandated state languages to help secure national unity, the case has been very different in the US. Some find it surprising, even frustrating, that the Constitution remains silent on the language question. Recent scholars suggest that there was little identification of a linguistic norm with national character during the formation of the US. Not only were non-English languages tolerated by the founding fathers: they were actively used to spread national principles (Heath 20–24). Much ink has been spilt over the question of whether a nation needs a single unified language to exist successfully, and here the US illustrates two important points. First, a strong sense of national cohesion can exist without a single language: there have always been large communities of non-English speakers in the US, yet the nation has remained largely intact (the Civil War was not fought over language). Second, despite the absence of a federally mandated language, English has achieved something akin to national dominance. The Constitution may have been silent about English, yet it was of course written in English—a [End Page 776] fact with powerful implications. To explain the ascendancy of English in the US, we might point to a variety of official initiatives that have imposed the language on traditionally non-anglophone ethnics, most notably in schools. We might also point to the more elusive phenomenon that Gramsci termed hegemony: the power inherent in dominant values to secure, over time, the active consent of minority groups.
If the US has traditionally lacked a questione della lingua in the Italian sense—a crucial national political debate over the language—there has been a tremendous amount of unofficial musing on the national tongue, a musing that often centers on claims that the nation bears a special relation to language because it was, in a sense, conceived in words: independence was declared. But if the US was an exceptional "language nation" for some, it was the site of linguistic anarchy for others. English may have become dominant in America, but the general tenor of debate over American English has been marked by an almost apocalyptic sense of insecurity over the quality of national standards. From Noah Webster on, American commentators have often been more concerned with the divisive dialects of English than with non-English languages, more concerned with the internal collapse of "the American language" than with its position among other tongues. One could argue that this obsession with the health of English has tended to obscure the presence of non-English languages in the US—but this seems to be changing. Since the early 1980s, the civic discourse over language has taken a new turn, away from something like tolerance (perhaps just apathy or ignorance) of non-English languages, toward a more active desire to legislate a particular variety of English as the official language, with the assumption that only through this common English can the cultural values...