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As Long as We Remember...

February 28, 2012

“Official” Language

Roy Meachum

The Board of County Commissioners agreed and proclaimed English as the official language in Frederick County. In all Maryland, this is the single jurisdiction where that’s true.


Immediately I was reminded of the old joke: “What do you call someone who’s fluent in three languages? Multilingual or a polyglot. Some who speak and understands two? Bilingual. And someone who handles simply one? An American.” The same rule applied to Englishmen when Britannia ruled the waves and the global map was covered with Royal Red.


Dabbling at German, Italian and Spanish, with dribs of Arabic, French, Norwegian, Polish, and Yiddish – depending on the moment – I never thought it would come to that. Of course, I was conscious of my neighbors drifting toward xenophobia, fear of anything foreign. On the other hand, during our daily promenades on North Market Street, Pushkin and I frequently encounter people from someplace else: Russian, German, Japanese, Chinese and mostly Latinos. More than several hundred emigrated from Honduras, San Salvador and Mexico, and stayed put.


Their babies with brown eyes twinkle when I say “Hola!” My hair, when it grew, was mostly blond and my eyes generally blue. My family in this country is traceable from the 17th century: Scottish families who were moved by the English (Sassenach) to hold back the Catholic population when they seized Ireland. The Scotch-Irish descendants provide the blood of the South, and that sweeps up all Rednecks. The Meachums witnessed the French-Indian War, the Revolution and all the conflicts that followed. Most of them would go along with the commissioners’ declaration, I’m sure.


South Louisiana would not support the Ku Klux Klan when they burned crosses and hanged ex-slaves, as I have written before; the Knights of the White Camellia was invented to harass Yankee carpetbaggers and their African Americans. In my native Monroe, there was a saying that demanded that things said must be “in plain English.” I never understood what that meant, especially after mother moved me to New Orleans. The city was a mish-mash. Italians had largely replaced the original French who lingered on in the local argot: banquette was sidewalk, for example. Coming from the Redneck north, the South Louisiana culture intrigued my intellectual curiosity.


But then I didn’t have to find a job and earn enough to feed a family. In-state and out-of-state voices have attack the commissioners’ last-week choice, chiefly on the bases of prejudice and bigotry, which county officials fail to grasp. Commissioners’ President Blaine Young foresees no difficulties, after all, as he cited to The Washington Post: milk is Maryland’s official drink and the oriole the state bird. There was never a drive to push Pimlico Preakness’s bourbon concoction to challenge milk. All the other local birds did not fly off in a pique.


Foreign-speaking men and women’s expectations and demands rarely cause employers to fire blue-eyed and blond-haired people, like I used to be. The county ordinance exempts health, safety and emergency services; and it does not apply to Pushkin and me. Our North Market Street “yellow door” is within the Frederick City limits, which the Board of County Commissioners does not rule, not yet.


There may be absolutely no problems. Commissioners’ President Young might be right.


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