Sunday, Coca Cola had a Super Bowl ad that set off a firestorm on the Internet.
Some people objected to the fact that “America, the Beautiful” was sung in multiple languages, not just English. The ad featured seven additional languages: Arabic, Hebrew, Keres, Mandarin, Senegalese-French, Spanish, and Tagalog. Some of the more printable Internet responses were along the lines of #Boycott Coke and “This is America, speak English.” As is wont to happen on the Internet, civil discourse quickly devolved. Racist comments and hashtags were rampant, and I was left shaking my head in frustration with some of my fellow Americans.
I was also left wondering: Just how many languages are spoken in the United States anyway?
Making Every Language Count
It turns out that this is not an easy question to answer. How many living languages there are in the world is itself open to debate. Different sources group dialects differently and decide whether the language is unique or an offshoot dialect of another language. For example, there are many dialects in Chinese—thirteen with more than two million native speakers each. Sometimes these are counted separately (as Mandarin, Wu, and so on) and sometimes they are lumped together in different ways, the broadest way, of course, being simply “Chinese.” Taking one source, for the sake of argument, Ethnologue currently lists 7,105 living languages. Interestingly, that number is up more than two hundred languages since the U.S. Census Bureau cited the same source in 2011. (Not sure what is happening there, but likely it is simply different categorizing of dialects and unique languages.)
The U.S. Census Bureau took Ethnologue’s number in 2011 (then 6,909) and distilled that into groupings of 381 languages spoken in the United States. They asked the census questions “Does this person speak a language other than English at home?” and “What is this language.” The respondent self-reported and filled in a blank for the second question. The census people grouped those answers into the aforementioned 381 languages. In their report they list thirty main languages and lump the rest into categories of others. Tagalog (one of the languages used in Coke’s ad), for example, is listed separately, but “Other Pacific Island Languages” are grouped together. Navajo has its own listing, but Keres (another Native American language, which was also used in the ad) would fall into the “Other Native American Languages” category.
So the “this is America, speak English” sentiment is problematic to begin with because, while likely thousands of languages (as recognized by Ethnologue) are spoken in the United States, the U.S. Census Bureau recognizes 380 language groupings besides English as being spoken here. “But!” the Internet sputters, “English is the language of Americans! Those people came from somewhere else! They should learn to speak our language.” Setting aside the issue that many of these people also speak English well, remember that the Pacific Island category, for example, covers Hawaiian (an official language of Hawaii, along with English), Chamorro (an official language of Guam), and Samoan (an official language of American Samoa). All three languages are spoken by people native to those islands, but Hawaii, Guam, and American Samoa are, respectively, a state and two territories of the United States. The people who live there are recognized as either U.S. citizens or U.S. nationals (both groups can freely travel within the United States, but there are differences in voting rights for the territories). And let’s not forget the indigenous people who speak a variety of Native American languages, including the aforementioned Keres. I think it is safe to say that the ancestors of these people were here long before my English-speaking ancestors showed up to the party.
English Only, Please?
But if we ignore our native populations (admit it, we’re pretty good at it after all!), when Europeans did finally show up to colonize the place, they spoke three main languages: English, Spanish, and French. And remnants of those colonizers live on in languages spoken by people born here, in places like Louisiana and Florida, where French Creole still exists, and Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, where Spanish is still spoken and whose people are U.S. citizens. Again, the Internet may point out that the British Colonies prevailed and thrived (for the most part—see the story of the lost British Colony at Roanoke, which did not end well), and it was these colonists who won independence and started our nation. Of course, even the British colonists spoke a variety of languages (Scottish Gaelic and Welsh, for example, both of which a few thousand people still speak at home today in the United States). And as people immigrated here (either by choice or by force), they brought even more languages and traditions—adding to the polyglot nature of our country.
But How Do You Say That in English?
And English, being a great adaptive language, absorbed thousands of words from these other languages. This has been going on for centuries, but a list of loanwords acquired by English since the Colonial period includes: cavalry, cachet, and clique from French; armadillo, armada, and adobe from Spanish; pizza, pasta, and piano from Italian; bagel, kibbitz, and schmuck from Yiddish; avatar, karma, and yoga from Sanskrit; bungalow, pajamas, and shampoo from Hindi; jazz, yam, and zebra from African languages; and moose, potato, and squash from Native American languages. We claim these words as our own, but they didn’t start out that way. Never fear, however! We also loan English words to other languages. I am sure the French are grateful for le parking and le weekend and German parents may want to hire der babysitter so they can have an evening out.
Even our American English is geographically specific. What do you call a meat-filled sandwich on a long roll? What do you call the shoes you wear on your feet when you are in gym class? What do you call a fizzy soft drink (like Coca Cola)? Your answers help linguists pinpoint your language origins. Even syntax is different from region to region. My British-by-birth husband speaks English, but even after more than a quarter century of marriage we still find the odd phrase, word, or syntax that has the other one saying, “What did you say?” Is his brand of British English okay with the Internet or should he speak exclusively in American English since he lives here now? And what about slang? Should that be allowed or not? Should we assume all those people clamoring on the Internet for Americans to speak English mean Standard American English? If so, can we apply that rule to written English on the Internet? As an editor and writer, I grow weary of the poor grammar and spelling I see there, but we all make mistakes—even editors and writers—so I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t help keep America beautiful, but it does help keep conversation civil.
Ownay Atwhay? 今度は何なの？Que faire maintenant? Was nun? ¿Y ahora qué? Sasa nini? Na te aha?**
More than a thousand Standard American English words later, I’m not sure where this leaves us. To recap: Coca Cola put together a nice ad with a multilingual version of “America, the Beautiful”; the Internet exploded; Americans speak (and sing) in lots of languages, not just English; and even our English isn’t as English as it used to be. It’s exhausting. We probably all need a Coke (soda, pop, tonic, fizzy drink, or whatever you want to call your soft drink of choice—or heck, it’s a free country, have a Pepsi even) and to chill a little. Sip it while repeating (in your language of choice): there’s no place like home.… Beautiful, America.
**Pig Latin translation by me; translations of Japanese, French, German, Spanish, Swahili, and Maori by Google Translate.
Text © 2014 by Rebecca Bigelow; ad © 2014 Coca Cola