June 04, 2007

Hablador de la Casa

There's a long piece by David Montgomery in Sunday's Washington Post about the pragmatic choice made by presidential candidates and other politicians to communicate with voters in Spanish, even among those who strongly support the primacy of English. The article touches on many of the issues discussed on Language Log in the past — from last year's "Nuestro Himno" controversy, to the vote on the Inhofe amendment declaring English the "national language," to the use of Spanish on the Senate floor (including by Sen. Inhofe), to Newt Gingrich's unfortunate "ghetto language" remark and his subsequent apology in what Montgomery calls "grammatically correct Spanish, albeit with a terminally Anglo accent."

Such an article would not be complete without some ribbing of earnest politicians falling desperately short of the mark in their Spanish usage:

No amount of studying can prevent the occasional gaffe. Gingrich was a pioneer of bilingual communication as speaker of the House, but a news release his office issued for Cinco de Mayo in 1998 is still recalled with chuckles in the bilingual halls of power.
The release referred to Gingrich as "Hablador de la Casa" — but "hablador" doesn't mean "speaker." It means someone who talks too much, a big mouth.
Then there's [Mitt] Romney's fiery "¡Patria o muerte — venceremos!" ["Fatherland or death — we shall overcome!"] in Miami. It happens to be a trademark line of Fidel Castro's.
Quoting Castro to Cuban Americans? ¡Caramba!
[Al] Cardenas, Romney's Cuban-born adviser, still winces. "It's one of those you wish you could take back," he says, adding that the speech was not properly vetted.

The news hook for Montgomery's piece is the pending vote on the immigration bill currently before the Senate (S. 1348), which once again includes an amendment from Sen. Inhofe declaring English the "national language." (Last year's amendment passed the Senate but was never enacted into law.) The legislation bears the title "the S.I. Hayakawa National Language Amendment Act of 2007," commemorating the English-only advocacy of the onetime senator (and general semanticist) Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa. Inhofe has also offered a more strongly worded bill (similarly named after Hayakawa) that would make English the "official" rather than "national" language of the US, a more satisfying turn of phrase to activist groups like ProEnglish. With the Democrats in charge of the Senate, Inhofe's proposed legislation would seem to stand less of a chance than last year, but given the charged atmosphere surrounding immigration reform it's hard to predict. Regardless of the result, expect our leading politicians to use more and more Spanish in the coming campaign season, based on the realpolitik of American bilingualism.

[Update, June 5: Some good discussion of the article is going on over at Languagehat.]

[Update, June 7: This year's version of the Inhofe amendment has passed the Senate, though it's likely as meaningless a vote as last year's. Details here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at June 4, 2007 03:06 PM