Those Who Don’t Know History (or Linguistics)

So, the tempest-in-a-teapot this week is a teacher of pallor announcing that she will no longer teach Spanish. This will help “decolonize” the language and empower students to take back their heritage. Or something. Apparently only people of non-European ancestry speak Spanish. And Spanish did not originate in Europe. Or something along those lines.


The former-teacher has a right to not teach, for her own reasons, and a right to follow whatever political philosophy she wishes. She does not have a right to change the history and structure of a language to suit how she believes the world to be, or would prefer it to be. Spanish, in all its dialects, comes from a blend of Latin, Visigothic, Berber, and Arabic. The country of Spain, when last I checked, was still attached to the European continent. The men and women (but mostly men for a long time) who introduced Spanish (and Portuguese) to the Americas and Africa would be appalled, amused, or enraged to be informed that they were not of European ancestry. There was a reason for the Casta charts and rules about marriage.

It’s been a heck of a week for language departments getting into the news. Princeton University’s classics department announced that it will no longer require Classics majors to learn Latin and Greek in order to major in the Classics. They can do all their coursework with translations of the texts. The stated goal is to make the course more friendly for “students from previously underserved communities,” as the academic euphemism phrases it. Already critics of the idea are pointing out that if you don’t read Latin or Greek, you can’t teach Latin or Greek. You can’t read new-to-you texts. You can’t read works that have not yet been translated into your native language. So you will have a very hard time getting a job in the field. Graduate work in Classics, outside of Princeton, will be impossible. I leave the implication that certain populations can’t learn to read Classical Greek and Latin on the floor. For generations of seminarians from all over the world to use as a soccer ball.

If you were to argue for a modern-language major using only translated texts, you’d get thrown out of the university (or high school for that matter.) A German major who can’t read or speak German? A Slavic-Studies major who reads no Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovak, or Serbo-Croatian? Get real. Not happening.

When you work with other languages besides your mother tongue, part of the process is learning the history of the language, how it came into being, what its roots are (to a certain point), and why it works the way it does. There are ideas and phrases that “don’t translate.” There are grammar structures that don’t appear in unrelated languages (English and Hebrew, or English and Hungarian, or English and . . . ) There are loan-words that don’t fit (Czech has a lot of Germanic and Latinate bits). You can’t rip a language out of context, once you get past a certain point in learning it.

Yes, today there are more Spanish speakers out of Spain than inside of Spain. I can understand why someone without a good background in the language, or who learned Spanish in Mexico or parts of Central and South America, would act as if the language originated in the Americas. And that only people from the Americas, especially people of Mestizo ancestry, are real Spanish speakers. And (I suspect) in the former teacher’s view, only Latinos/as should be teaching Spanish, because they are the only real Spanish speakers and only true carriers of Spanish-language culture.

It’s the same argument that bubbled up in academic history decades ago. “Only women should do women’s history. Only Native Americans should do Native American history. Only military veterans should do military history.” In which case John Keegan could never have kick-started military history into a very broad discipline that goes far beyond battles and beans. And who would write environmental history? Or ancient history (OK, that’s easy – archaeologists claimed that one a century ago, spoil-sports.) I don’t like the theoretical constructions* currently required in “women’s history,” thank you. Let me see the documents, see archaeological materials and dig reports, and them make my own conclusions, please? I’d rather do environmental or military, or even economic history.

I’m more mutt than German, but I speak and read the language pretty well. I speak OK Spanish, and can survive in a few other languages even though I don’t belong to those cultures. I can parse some Greek if it is written with Latin characters, especially theological Greek. (Heck, I can even suss out a lot of theological, Greek-letters Greek if I have some English or German context around it.) I hit a wall with Russian, but that had as much to do with how it was taught as with the language.

Tl;dr: Anyone who wants to learn a language should do it. If they want to teach it, and can do it well, more power to them. And watering down the class doesn’t help anyone.

*I don’t like theories-of-history in general, even though I read them and use them when necessary.


25 thoughts on “Those Who Don’t Know History (or Linguistics)

  1. Petulance for principle. Ignorance for informed opinion. Emotive ranting for logic. No nukes! Save the whales!

    And by all means, go out and pose with the grizzly bears.

  2. One of the things that both amuses and irritates my wife is that when I suffer sudden physical pain (self- or other-inflicted), I tend to swear in Zulu. She’s annoyed that I refuse to translate it for her – but it does relieve my feelings . . .


    • Are you sure there’s not a copy (or e-copy) of Learn to Speak Zulu somewhere in the household? 🙂

      • I doubt that most “learn to use…” books contain the curse words. 😀

        • [clickety]
          “How to curse in Zulu”

          “About 2,890,000 results (0.59 seconds)”

          Looks like at least three from the first page might be useful…

  3. “And that only people from the Americas, especially people of Mestizo ancestry, are real Spanish speakers.”

    My high School Spanish teacher, a Cuban academic who fled Castro, would disagree with that idea.

    • *Snrk* I heard an account from someone who went to school in Texas that there were a bunch of local kids of Mexican descent taking Spanish ’cause they thought it’d be easy.

      The teacher spoke Castilian….

      • Yeah, on the first day, our teacher made sure we understood we would be learning “pure Castilian” not “border Mexican.”

  4. For generations of seminarians from all over the world to use as a soccer ball.

    But those were *gasp* RELIGIOUS people!

    Ick! Ick! Ick!

  5. Those fluent in Castilian or Catalan will rightly glare down their patrician noses at the thought of “pidgin” as Spanish.

    If you can’t lithp it, don’t thpeak it.

  6. I’ve long regretted that the school system where I grew up didn’t offer Latin as a high school language option. I would have liked to learn Latin, probably more than the three languages (French, German and Spanish) that were offered. It would have at least been as useful to me as the little German that I did learn.

    • One strong advantage of Latin is that you have to learn the grammar. And that grammar pattern is used to teach pretty much every other European language (never tried an Asian language). So when someone says “OK, this preposition takes the Dative case,” you know exactly what it does, why, and where it fits in the sentence. Verb tenses as well, since we no longer learn present, perfect, past perfect, imperfect past, conditional, conditional future, or the like for English.

      • Those of us who pay attention to the language we actually use see the concepts, and adopt the words as we learn them. One of the best lessons I got from my father is that almost everything has a right name, even if it’s known only to specialists.

  7. It seem to me like some of these people are *trying* to destroy themselves and their once proud institutions…

    if that criteria were used for French, then only people from Africa could teach it, which would consternate both Parisians and the ‘refined’ classes of South East Asia…

    Don’t forget that “Hispanic” is a fairly recent goegraphical term, not a racial one. In the US, it is applied to anyone from south of the US border, regardless of their background – to give 2 examples, there are elite families in South America who are proud of their 100% European ancestry (and in Peru, 100% Japanese ancestry) who don’t see or identify themselves as Hispanic. Secondly, there are Native American tribes who were split by the US/ Mexico border. Those north of the border are considered Native American, but those south of the border are considered Hispanic

  8. Hoo boy… ‘That’ is going to work well in the real world… As for the teacher, GOOD RIDDANCE!

  9. “This will help “decolonize” the language and empower students to take back their heritage. Or something. Apparently only people of non-European ancestry speak Spanish. And Spanish did not originate in Europe. Or something along those lines.”

    Sigh. Now this is a level of ignorance that I have not seen in a long while.

    • How do you even get to be a teacher (professional, even ) of any foreign language with that level of ignorance about the language?

      • People are promoted today on how deeply they believe the prevailing crackpot theory, not on how well they can refute it.

      • If they’re fairly young, all the texts and materials they were taught from probably shared that common Narrative. And the Narrative only touches reality-as-we-know-it at occasional points.

        And I’ve noticed few students read much outside of their assigned coursework. “I’m here to be educated, why should I have to put forth any effort of my own?”

        • The problem is the passive voice ‘to be educated’. It should be ‘to become educated’, which requires the active voice.

          • I overheard a prof at Flat State U informing a petulant undergrad that, “Your parents paid for you to have the opportunity to learn. They did not purchase a right to a grade. The mark stands.” Imagine that in the cool, dispassionate tone of the law professor from “The Paper Chase” and you’ll have the moment.

            • I am pretty sure that is not the same school Not-Little-Brother teaches at, but that description is him to a T.

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