American Languages?

At the University of St Andrews I have had the privilege to teach quite a numerous cohort of students from North America, be it from Canada or the United States. I believe that in the social sciences and humanities much value lies in asking questions that have not been asked yet, or tend to be avoided. The aim is to look at the man-made (or social) reality from a different than the usual perspective, in endeavor to gain a deepened comprehension of a mechanism or fragment of this reality.

'Reservations' in the USA
‘Reservations’ in the USA

But to approach the goal, the student or researcher must attempt going beyond received knowledge and the familiar. When I teach a group of students for the first time, after the usual round of introductions, I try my hand at jostling them out of their comfort intellectual zone. I ask questions about the obvious. And soon enough it turns out that the obvious is not that obvious, and questioning it uncovers seams of overlooked – almost transparent – assumptions that family, society, school and the mass media have stacked in our heads.

One of my typical questions for North American students is whether they happen to know names of any American languages. A volunteer quickly proposes, ‘English.’

'Reservations' in South Dakota
‘Reservations’ in South Dakota

But I reply, ‘It is a European language. English originated in England, today part of Britain.’

Posed with this dilemma, one of the students usually seeks a qualification of my initial question, ‘Do you mean Native American languages?’

‘No, I mean American languages.’

‘It is English only, isn’t it?’

‘Perhaps, Spanish, too?,’ another student adds helpfully.
But I retort, ‘Well, like English, Spanish also originated in Europe.’

‘Can it be then Navajo, Sioux or Cree?’

‘Indeed, these are American languages, they originated in what today is known as “North America”.’
The reply displeases, the students feel cheated, ‘But we said, so.’

‘How come?’

‘We asked whether you meant Native American languages, and you said No.’

‘Right. But let us consider the following question: “Is English a Native European language?”’

‘Of course, not. English is a “European” language.’

‘Not a “Native European” one? Isn’t it native to Britain and spoken by natives in this country?’

The American students sigh at my apparent lack of knowledge and comprehension, the British ones are puzzled, and those from elsewhere in the European Union prefer to keep away from the unpredictable flow of the discussion.

‘By saying “natives” we mean “Native Americans,” who live in the reservations. They speak their “native languages”.’

‘OK, but aren’t these American languages?’


‘If you agree, why wouldn’t you add the qualification “native” to the European languages spoken in Europe?’

‘Sir,’ a student volunteers to solve the dilemma, ‘maybe it would be less problematic to speak of languages, which are indigenous to Europe or America?’

‘You propose to exclude the offending adjective “native” from our conversation.’


‘But maybe, instead of doing so, let us better analyze the uses of this implicated word and what it does to our perception of the world around us. Something of import seems to be at the matter here.

‘By saying “native” you appear to denote a member of the local population or populations in a European colony or in a settler country, such as Canada or the US. The settlers – or “illegal aliens” in the typical parlance of democratic politics nowadays – overran the colonized territory with no respect for the laws and custom of its peoples, and squeezed the remnants of the latter into the countryside ghettoes going by the unsavory name of “reservations”.

‘If my analysis holds, it means that the term “native,” as employed in our discussion is colonial in its character. Hence, it appears strange and nonsensical to you when we apply this word to Europe. It was Europe – or the West – that colonized and terrorized the rest of the world, not the other way around.

‘Under many innocuous words dark times and events from the past lurk, which these words sanitize and conceal. The role of the scholar is to uncover such hidden truths, however unpleasant, and as you can see, it may be done by paying close attention to eccentricities in the use of the “normal, everyday terms and phrases”. Colonization was not something of which Americans or Europeans can be today proud of.’

I don’t know whether I convinced many to adopt my views on colonialism, but for sure I made them think, which in the first place, was the main point of this exercise. Attending more of my seminars, the students began to pay better attention to terms, their definitions and implied meanings when analyzing events from the past and building their own arguments.

Sadly, thus far, I haven’t yet met a student from Australia who would be able to give me a name of at least a single Australian language; no, not of a “native” or “Aboriginal,” but just of an “Australian” language. Who nowadays cares of Walpiri or of Tiwi – today, the largest Australian languages – apart from its five thousand odd speakers in the very north of the country? Isn’t it so that the British civil servants retroactively legitimated their seizure of Australia by declaring it in 1827 a terra nullius, a ‘land belonging to no one’? They made no effort to comprehend and observe the customary law of the land’s inhabitants. Conveniently, the latter were pushed aside, out of sight, with brute force when needed. Diseases brought along by the settlers wiped out entire peoples, and halved and decimated time and again the remnants; their languages silenced and conveniently forgotten. Nowadays English-speakers enjoy the easy mineral wealth of this land and its beaches, with no thought spared on the fate of those from whom they were stolen.

March 19, 2014