linguistic neocolonialism

I just learned this week that the word I thought of as “expatriot” is actually “expatriate.” I think that’s a really interesting mistake, but I’m also disappointed in myself for not getting it, since I consider myself fairly linguistically gifted. It would be much more interesting, and also much more US-centric, I think, if it were an “expatriot,” because it would describe an American who leaves the US because they are dissatisfied with American culture or embarrassed by it, while at the same time showing how American they are. It would certainly describe me.

So it’s funny that we have this word “immigrant,” which is used as a mark of awesomeness in history classes and as a pejorative in political discourse. Without going to the OED, I would say that on the surface, “expatriate” and “immigrant” actually mean the same thing–that is, a person from one nation who lives in another–except that “immigrant” has the implication of inferiority as the main catalyst for the move from one country to another. That is certainly a reason for immigration, I’m sure, but it’s not really all that fair. Do we have one word for people who move to the US to find “better” lives that we don’t use for, say, a successful Hollywood actor who is actually from Britain but lives in LA? Who is that person? An expatriate, an immigrant, or something else?

This is probably not such an interesting observation to make, but this class is making me more aware of how Americans use linguistics, particularly euphemisms and the vastness of the American vocabulary, to assert its imperialism and colonialism without directly doing so.

In my workshop the other day, we ended up talking about the use of Spanish in literature that is otherwise all in English. We’ve also brought this up in my literature class, because the assumption is that American literature is all in English, but since the United States doesn’t have an official language, and since it is a nation formed through immigration, that’s not necessarily the only way of looking at it. Writers such as Junot Diaz, Rudolfo Anaya and Sandra Cisneros challenge that. (And that’s just in terms of Spanish in America–there’s also the fact that Americans love Yiddish, and that there are tons of other languages spoken in the US.) And so a girl in my workshop had written a piece in which there is Spanish written. Thankfully, it was not italicized or immediately translated, and I liked that. Sure, some people may have to google a word or two if it’s not made clear by context (it usually was), and some people may stop reading, but literature isn’t written for all readers. That would be silly. And there’s no reason that nondominant culture should be overexplained in literature. But one woman in the workshop was offended by it, and when others of us tried to explain that being offended by Spanish and by culture that she didn’t understand was a white-privileged response, she said that that was just Americans being obsessed with political correctness. And, because she was an expatriate living in Prague, she was exempt from knowing what is going on in literature, racism, political correctness, and all that.

Fucking bullshit.


4 thoughts on “linguistic neocolonialism

    • That makes me think of “migrant worker,” which is another thing that, at least in Arizona, seems to always imply Spanish-speaking and grapes or some other crop.

  1. I absolutely love this post! I also used to think that “expatriate” was spelled “ex-patriot,” with the implication that an American had repudiated all Americanness and decided to live elsewhere.

    Are you travelling the Czech right now?

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