I watched the Super Bowl this year for three reasons: to see the trailers for upcoming superhero movies, to dance to Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and to watch the commercials for some killer conversation starters the next morning. Super Bowl XVLIII offered fans an unusually one-sided game in which the Seahawks beat the Broncos 43-8, but while fans of opposing teams were driven apart as the game progressed, the commercials between plays ostensibly brought them back together.
“Full House” reunions, M&M disaster scenarios and adorable animals every few ads could have done little but unite people in ecstasy. But one commercial by Coca-Cola, while meant to endorse a vision of modern America as simultaneously diverse and united, was met with controversy and public outrage. Coke branded their product to the tune of “America, the Beautiful” sung in a variety of languages. Self-identifying patriotic mavericks instantly took to Twitter in a storm of fury. Within moments “#SpeakAmerican” began trending as U.S. citizens tweeted that singing the song in any language but American (read: English) is offensive, un-American and representative of a weak country.
These hardy nationalists made a few mistakes in their activist social media campaign against non-Americanism. For starters, “American” is not a language. If “American” were ever a language, it would be representative of the incredible diversity of ethnicities and cultures the United States offers a home to. Immigrants founded America, after all, so it only makes sense to include new cultures when forming contemporary perceptions of what America actually is. In fact, nearly all of the English language—which these individuals meant to refer to—is derived from languages from abroad. Further, as of the most recent U.S. Census, two-thirds of those reported to speak English also speak Spanish. The U.S. is home to six other languages that are spoken by at least a million individuals, including in descending order: Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, French, German and Korean. In some parts of the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, upwards of 40 percent of citizens speak a language other than English at home.
While English certainly remains the dominantly spoken language in the U.S., it has yet to be declared the country’s official national language. There are reasons for this. Most notable—and what those who reacted so hostilely to the commercial were actually right about—is the simple idea that our language has an impact, just not always a desirable one. Declaring a national language might stand as a unifying force for those who speak it fluently, but it would simultaneously create a paradox against America’s historical place as a melting pot of different cultures. A national language fosters uniformity, but it also sends the message that America should be solely a homogenous nation. This message has dangerous consequences for a country that is already perceived so negatively by people and nations abroad.
Reading online debates between those who support and despise Coke’s commercial reminds me of Duke’s “You Don’t Say” campaign, which aims to make students more aware of the impacts their words can have on others. Some students criticize the campaign for exacerbating social issues on-campus, but, at both the individual and collective group level, choice of language has severe effects. Nationwide criticism to what I first perceived to be an innocently unifying commercial shows the effects of language clearly. The Twitter explosion has done nothing but show how some American citizens have not quite yet progressed to the point of accepting cultures different from their own. More than this, criticism of other languages signifies to Americans who speak these other languages that aspects of their cultures are somehow less “American” than those of English-speaking backgrounds. Trending tweets in outrage of “America, the Beautiful” not being sung exclusively in “American” is potentially just as offensive as calling someone gay or tranny or telling someone to “man up.”
I look at this creatively uncreative hashtag and realize ironically that I wholeheartedly agree with its message: Citizens of America should #SpeakAmerican. As such, we should speak with consideration of differences, appreciation of diversity and understanding of the importance of their words. I listen to the second verse of “America, the Beautiful” for solace that the United States is meant to be greater than the widespread outrage of diversity would seem to depict: “O beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress. A thoroughfare of freedom beat across the wilderness! America! America! God mend thine every flaw. Confirm thy soul in self-control—thy liberty in law!” Hopefully the U.S. can continue to be a nation welcoming to a mixture of cultures filled with Americans who are conscientious of the influence their words can have.
Brendan McCartney is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs every other Tuesday.