Posted by: sbilingual | November 23, 2010

Language controversy reflected in history

EDMOND — George Washington Cable was an author who lived and wrote in New Orleans, La., after the Civil War.

Cable wrote novels and short stories that were inspired by the colorful lives led by the French-speaking Creoles of that city who had to adjust to American life after the Louisiana Territory was sold by Napoleon to the United States in 1803. His fiction was admired by Mark Twain, and the two authors became close friends and conducted several speaking tours that took them to locations throughout the nation.

On several structures in what is known today as the “French Quarter” in New Orleans are historical markers that indicate those buildings were featured in stories written by Cable, and how his fiction may have been inspired by actual residents who lived there.

A common theme in Cable’s work was how the Creoles resented how the English language had gradually replaced French in both government and commerce in New Orleans as a result of the Louisiana Purchase. One of his full-length novels, “The Grandissimes,” was an account of a prominent French Creole family of New Orleans that had relatives that were partially of African American and Native American heritage.

One member of that fictional family was the wealthy sugar planter Honore Grandissime, who at one point in the novel observed that while he spoke English, he also spoke Choctaw, and that while both languages were useful for his business transactions, he would not tolerate the speaking of English at his dinner table any more than he would “eat a dog.”

The French-speaking Creoles of New Orleans as well as the Cajuns of rural Louisiana gradually adjusted to the use of English in their lives. That adjustment was probably facilitated in large part by the knowledge that they would always be a minority in an English-speaking nation.

Many Spanish-speaking residents of this country can point to statistics regarding population growth that tend to indicate speakers of that tongue will in time constitute a majority in several states and eventually the nation as a whole. Measures such as the recent Oklahoma constitutional amendment that mandates that English be the language of government in the state may inspire similar enactments regarding the Spanish language when Hispanics became a majority.

The constitutionality of that amendment has been challenged in federal court, and there is possibility that it will not take effect as a result. Like many municipalities in Oklahoma, the City of Edmond is now home to a sizable Hispanic community. The family-owned Mexican restaurants that are situated in what had formerly been chain restaurants in Edmond are indicative of their strong work ethic as well as their spicy culinary traditions.

Across the street from where a Humpty Dumpty sits precariously on a wall, the Edmond Municipal Court is gaveled into session several mornings a week. One of the city employees present for that court is a smiling young woman who wears a badge that indicates she is an interpreter for Spanish-speaking people who have received traffic tickets. She can be seen translating in a sympathetic manner for those who want to tell the judge the circumstances surrounding their alleged violations of the city’s traffic ordinances when that court is in session.

Several years ago, the City of Edmond began to give its firefighters and other emergency personnel rudimentary training in Spanish so they could better serve Hispanic residents. Such measures to assist Hispanic immigrants may in time prove more effective in easing their transition into American life than enactments that mandate that English be the official language of government.

WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.



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