You Are What You Speak

Should Congress pass legislation making English the nation's official language? How does language impact on a person's sense of identity or a community's coherence?

Should Congress pass legislation making English the nation’s official language? How does language impact on a person’s sense of identity or a community’s coherence?

The Whitney Humanities Center at Yale will host a conference to consider these and related questions on November 15-16. “Language and National Identity” will bring together scholars from Yale, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Cornell and other universities to discuss English-only laws, bilingual education, multicultural studies, ethnic separatism, and related issues. Anthropologists, historians, legal experts, literary scholars, political scientists, and sociologists will participate in a series of panels and a roundtable. The conference, at the Whitney Humanities Center, 53 Wall Street, is free and open to the public.

The first panel, on Friday, November 15, 1:30-3:30 p.m., will place the issue in its historic context. Participants are David Bell, Johns Hopkins, speaking on “The Fall of the Universal Tongue: Language and National Identity in Modern France”; Liah Greenfeld, Boston University, on “Nationalism and Language: Some Historical Connections and Theoretical Implications”; and Richard Helgerson, University of California, Santa Barbara, on “Language Lessons: Linguistic Colonialism, Linguistic Post-Colonialism and the Early-Modern English Nation.” Moderator will be Vera Kutzinski, Yale professor of English, African-American Studies, and American Studies.

The second panel, on Friday, November 15, 3:45-5:45 p.m., will examine the myths and realities of national and international languages. Panelists will be Juan Perea, University of Florida, speaking on “Observations on Language and National Identity”; David Simpson, Columbia, on “Prospects for Global English: Back to BASIC?”; and Michael Holquist, Yale, on “Local Universes: Myths of a National Language.” Joseph Errington, Yale professor of anthropology and East Asian languages and literatures and acting chair of the Council on Southeast Asia Studies, will moderate.

The third panel, on Saturday, November 16, 9:30-11:30 a.m., addresses three specific cultures. Kathryn Woolard, University of California, San Diego will present “Class, Gender, and the Nationalist Language Project in Catalonia.” Doris Sommer, Harvard, will present “Our AmeRica,” and Benedict Anderson, Cornell, will consider “What if the Gettysburg Address Had Been Given in Japanese?” Mr. Anderson is in residence as the Luce Scholar in the Humanities and Social Thought at the Whitney Humanities Center during the fall semester, 1996. Ian Baucom, assistant professor of English at Yale, will serve as moderator.

The final session, Saturday, November 16, 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m., will be a round table featuring all participants.

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