The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It


Animals communicate with others of their kind in a variety of ways.  For most that is through body language and to a lesser degree through vocalization without the benefit of words or a specific language.  We humans too communicate to others through our body language (though this is mostly unconscious) but our primary tool is our language – the words we speak and how we employ them.  Language is a very powerful thing.

When the Second Vatican Council concluded in 1965, one of the most important and immediate effects on Roman Catholics was permitting the use of the vernacular language of an area for the Mass, rather than continuing the millennium and a half long tradition of offering the liturgy in Latin and Greek (“the Kyrie”).

Older communicants who had lived their entire lives with the Latin mass felt betrayed.  Now they had to learn the responses with which they  had grown up in another language.  Some viewed this as an outgrowth of what they viewed as the secularization of the Church.

The prelates who agreed to this change had the intention of helping people understand more fully what was being said in the liturgy and to be more participatory in it.  If they considered that a Roman Catholic from Milwaukee, WI could no longer attend a service in Paris, France and be able to make the appropriate responses, apparently they felt that the benefits outweighed the disadvantages.

In the forty-six years since the Council concluded, the Roman Catholic Church has undergone some major transformations.  At that time, only a small percentage of the Church’s faithful admitted that they thought the policy on birth control was wrong.  Today, that number is near fifty percent.  On this the Church has been consistent – and perhaps it is merely a reflection of the times and not an abandonment of the Latin mass that is responsible.  Or perhaps it’s a little of both.

Consider language in another faith, Islam.  The faithful, no matter where they go throughout the world will hear the imam offer up prayers to Allah in Arabic – and only in that language.   And they will make their responses in Arabic.

I spoke years ago with a friend who was a practicing Muslim – the owner of a small convenience store near my apartment.  He and his family were from Pakistan and spoke Urdu.  I asked him if he learned Arabic at his local mosque or took classes in it so that he could pray appropriately.  He surprised me with his answer, “He knew the prayers in Arabic because he had memorized them.  But he didn’t understand the language itself.”

That was precisely what Vatican II set out to abolish – mere repetition – and to replace it with understanding.  But as we look at these two dynamic faiths, it is clear to see how they have fared over these last several decades.  There has been a great deal of dissension within the Church of Rome – and a great deal of solidarity in the faith that Muhammad brought forth.  Could the language of their respective worship in some part be responsible?

When the waves of immigrants made their migrations to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries they came from multiple lands and spoke many different languages.  Not surprisingly, they banded together to live, where they could continue the language and the customs of their native countries.  But while they may have spoken their native tongues in their homes and with tradesmen who were from their country, they learned English.  That was the language of their new country.  It was the language of commerce.  It was the language that they had to know if they wanted to make a success of their lives here.

Italians gave up speaking Italian; Germans gave up German; Poles gave up Polish.  America was receptive to taking in these pilgrims but it required that they learn the official language of their new land, English.  And they did learn it.  And suddenly they stopped thinking of themselves as Italian-Americans or Polish-Americans and simply thought of themselves as who they had really become – just plain old Americans without the need for hyphens.  They had truly melted in the melting pot that America offered those who came to our shores.  They were now bound by common laws and a common language.

I wrote this post because as I was going to vote today I re-read the entire booklet with which I was provided.  I had glanced over the notice that is circled below which now requires that voting material be made available in Spanish as well as Filipino (Tagalog) to those voters who so request it.  I am sure that the intention behind this rule is to make sure that Americans who speak those languages will be better able to make informed choices about political candidates.

But as I reflect on the divisions which exist in America, many based on our hyphenated way of fractionalizing ourselves into x-Americans; y-Americans and z-Americans, it is hard not to think that we are bringing these divisions on ourselves – and they are harming us as individuals and our country.  And if we don’t find some common ground, the divisions and the rifts are only going to grow wider.

Perhaps one step would be our insistence on sharing a common language -because language is a very powerful thing.


Comments on: "THE POWER OF LANGUAGE" (4)

  1. People who intend to live in a country should make every attempt to understand the language of that country. When I temporarily located in countries overseas it was expected of me that I would at least be able to communicate with their citizens on a basic level. I would expect the same courtesy of people migrating to my country.

    • You used a key word, Ian – courtesy. I’ve found that when I’ve been in foreign countries, even if my knowledge of the language was limited, people seemed to appreciate my efforts to communicate even if they realized that I was using a basic phrase book to do so. I don’t think of myself as so important that if I were to move to Paris I would expect the local people to drop everything and learn English for my convenience.

  2. I think offering language choices is a sure step backwards. Like Ian, I agree that people who want to join the club must abide by clubs rules > whether in language or attire. No one forced them to enter your country…

  3. Thank you for your comment, Eric. There can be no clearer example of people’s recognition that language is the way that we break down walls and communicate with each other than by the effort to introduce a universal language, Esperanto among the world’s population. In the absence of any success in that regard and as we cling to our multiple-linguistic distinctions, it seems to me that as visitors to a foreign land and particularly as permanent guests and citizens, we ought to make the effort to learn the language of the country.

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