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"1992" versus "Loisaida"

A piece about all the languages spoken on NYC's Lower East Side, with an implied message for the nations of Europe. Published by Language International, Nottingham, in 1990.

We keep hearing on all sides that in 1992 at least twelve nations of Europe will come together in a glorious embrace. Thanks to their impeccable culture and wisdom developed over the centuries, they will all get along perfectly and no longer have any need of such lesser domains as the Americas, Asia, or Africa. Together at last, this new European colossus will easily put such declining powers as the US or the USSR in their place. And of course there will be no laguage problem left in Europe by that time—almost everyone will be speaking at least three languages fluently, and for those who don't there will be an endless supply of translating computers, voice-writers, and voice simulators ready to transmute their slightest thoughts into nine separate languages, perhaps even into Gaelic and Luxembourg German.

I'm skeptical, maybe you can tell. It's partly because I was around in England during the 'Sixties and heard much the same propaganda when Ted Heath was on the warpath to bring Britain into the EEC, only to be blackballed by De Gaulle. But my skepticism goes deeper than this—I really don't think Europeans have the slightest notion what is involved in the merger they propose, whether linguistically, culturally, OR politically. And They haven't even begun to think about what happens when anyone within the EEC can travel to any country, take up residence, and start working. And recent events in Eastern Europe can compound this situation many times over.

To show you why I feel this way, I'd like to take you on a linguistic stroll through my neighborhood in New York. In linguistic terms it is arguably the most sophisticated area on the face of the globe. Even its name provokes language disputes: some upgrade it as the East Village (after nearby Greenwich Village), others revert to the older "Lower East Side," while yet others insist on a spanished version of this, "Loisaida." You should see soon enough how this little walk may apply to Europe.

First thing to understand: I cannot even get out of my building without confronting two of the world's other major languages—Spanish and Chinese. The odds are one out of three that I will speak Spanish to someone on my elevator. A European visitor recently observed that Spanish is spoken in New York only by the "lower social strata"—we'll see soon enough that it's a bit more complex than that. But I still haven't made it outside—on the ground floor my building contains an extremely good Sichuan style Chinese restaurant. If I enter, I will note that the owners speak something quite comprehensibly close to Mandarin. And if I am foolish enough to speak a few such syllables to them, I will be so overwhelmed by their friendliness that out of self-defence I have come to speak English, at least most of the time. I try to live in as many cultures as I can, but we all have our limits.

I've finally made it onto the street, near the corner of Second Avenue and Sixth Street, where I now head East. Immediately I am transported to Bengal—between my corner and First Avenue are no fewer than a dozen Bengali restaurants, with at least another dozen nearby. I frequently hear what can only be Silete, the spoken form of Bengali, as I walk down this block. Reaching First Avenue, I could turn left into Polish and Ukrainian areas, where both languages are vibrantly alive. Instead, I turn right, pass some Bengali food stores and a small Japanese enclave, and watch the street numbers fall until I reach Houston Street (pronounced House-ton locally, not the effeminate Texan "Hyoostun"). It is "zero street," and below it all streets, as in Europe, have names instead of numbers.

We've only had a foretaste so far. Along Houston are a few more hints of what awaits us: stores with signs in Spanish, Yiddish, Italian, even Chinese, proof that Chinatown, half a mile to the South, is pushing northward. I head east for a block and then go down Orchard Street, the once fabled Jewish outdoor market place, still remaining Jewish enough not to visit on a Saturday. I hear Yiddish spoken but also Spanish, for Puerto Ricans have taken over many of the displays, and on this particular day a Mariachi band is performing outside to celebrate the opening of a Mexican eatery.

But this is still only a sample of what awaits us. I'm turning East on Rivington Street and aim for the northern entrance of the Essex Street Retail Market, sometimes referred to by locals as the Sex Street Tail Market, based on a view of its sign from a certain angle. For years I visited this market and thought of it as no more than picturesquely shabby, often not even that picturesque. Then I spent some time in Mexico. When I returned, I was able to see it for what it is, as a genuine Mexican and/or Latin American marketplace. What I had previously deciphered as "shabby" was in fact a free, spontaneous use of space and a way of displaying food and items for sale quite foreign to our own. Also on display, in two separate botanicas (or herb-shops), are the ritual perfumes and images of the African Yoruba faith, popular among Hispanics and one of New York's several major religions. Naturally, a fair amount of Spanish is spoken here, but there is also room for Italian, Yiddish, and even some English.

The market place is two blocks long, and if I kept heading South I would collide with the pickles and religious articles of the Essex Street Jewish section. But instead I will walk West on Delancey Street to encounter the northern prong of Chinatown. Originally limited to two small streets, Chinatown has grown enormously in the last two decades, and now occupies all or part of some fifty blocks. It is hard to come by reliable statistics on the number of Chinese in New York—depending on the source, there are from one hundred to six hundred thousand of them. I tend to believe the latter figure—one reason I started studying Chinese is that I am curious, and every time I rode on the subway, I would find someone next to me, opposite me, or just a few seats away reading a Chinese newspaper.

When the Chinese travel, they take their whole culture with them: language, literature, art, medicine, music, the works. And this well defines Chinatown. We call them Chinese-Americans. They call themselves huaqiao, Overseas Chinese. The distinction is important. One used to hear only the Toishan Village form of Cantonese in Chinatown. Now you can hear Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujian, Hakka, and no doubt other dialects as well. And also find restaurants specializing in the food of all these provinces, some so totally Chinese that few lofan (western barbarians) dare to enter. Each weekend, Chinese living in other parts of the city stream into Chinatown to do their shopping. To the confusion of outsiders, prices are sometimes quoted in Chinese style, so many dollars (kuai), so many dimes (mao), and the odd bits (fen). A Chinese translator friend who had been sent by Peking to learn English told me he had no choice but to move out of Chinatown if he really wanted to learn the language. Otherwise, he said, he might as well be living in China. Walking and shopping in Chinatown may cease after a while to be exotic, but even for sinophiles it can still remain foreign. By the way, total walking time from my home to the heart of Chinatown: a brisk 20 minutes, half an hour if I dally.

It's time to stop and say something about Spanish. I've put it off because it's a very big subject, one which Europe's 1992 advocates had better understand exceptionally well. The European journalist who said that only New York's "lower social strata" speak Spanish did not know what he was talking about. If I had turned right instead of left when I came out of my building, I would have soon reached an upscale Venezuelan restaurant where I cannot afford to eat. There are nearly one and a half million Spanish-speaking New Yorkers, twenty percent of its population, a city within a city. It is the world's seventh most populous Spanish-speaking center, with more hispanophones than Quito, Asuncion, or La Paz and almost as many as Havana de Cuba. It is in many ways a self-sufficient world with its own customs, heroes and communications. At least a third of subway advertisements are in Spanish, and signs in hospitals and other public institutions are usually in both Spanish and English (and increasingly in Chinese as well). There are more hours of Spanish TV in New York than of native language programming in some European capitals. And because freedom of expression is not always possible in some Spanish-speaking nations, New York has long been accepted as a way station in the careers of many hispanic artists, writers and intellectuals. Various groups present entertainments from several different Hispanic traditions, including plays, pageants, popular dance festivals, concerts and zarzuelas. These peoples come from a variety of national, cultural and economic backgrounds and have repeatedly expressed resentment at being bundled together as "hispanic."

And of course all these peoples keep coming to New York, keep coming to America. Many of them live as "illegals," with all the economic and social problems this implies. Those accustomed to the strict control on immigrants common in Europe may be surprised to learn that a recent amnesty pardoned over a million such illegals, and already one hears calls for a new amnesty. And these people are by no means all Hispanics or Asiatics—there is a new wave of European illegals as well, mostly from Ireland and Poland, but one also encounters West German and even British illegals as well. I even have a friend who began here as a Swiss illegal. Even granting that a fair degree of national intermingling is going on in Europe, I wonder how ready governments over there—to say nothing of the people—are for anything comparable to New York. France has just put an end to "Immigration," Germany has actually expelled some Turks and may expel more to make room for East Germans, and even the Italians are complaining about "foreigners." Europe is fairly bursting at the seams—is anyone really able to think forward a few decades and visualize the French Quarter in London, the English Quarter in Madrid, or the Irish Quarter in Hamburg?

So now you are in the heart of Chinatown. There are still a lot of choices. We could go looking for the Thai, Vietnamese or Laotian enclaves in Chinatown, or I could take you back through Little Italy with its festivals and occasional Mafia rub-outs. But instead I'll do something more controversial and lead you uptown along Allen or Chrystie Street. I say controversial because here, during the day at least, you are likely to hear the accents of a highly disputed language: Black English. Some linguists had to fight long and hard to make other linguists even admit it exists. And some black leaders attempt to deny or minimize its reality, while others elevate it to the status of a full-fledged tongue, which educators must respect. But there's no doubt you can hear it right now during out walk. The rhythms are familiar—they should be, because they are related to other African rhythms that have had such an impact on popular music in the Americas, Britain, and continental Europe. Too many people still assume culture is a one-way exchange, that it invariably proceeds from the "higher" sources (for some reason always European or Western ones) to "lower" tributaries (for some reason the rest of the world).

True, some allege that those lounging on park benches and speaking Black English are addicts, drug dealers, pimps, or the homeless waiting for nearby men's shelters to open for the night. Or all of the above. And perhaps some of them are. I've included them in our stroll because I want to emphasize that this stroll is no mere academic exercise. It's a real walk through a real city,—I take parts of it every day and the whole walk every two weeks or so. The idea that you are my guest is also not a fantasy—I have escorted many Europeans along all or parts of this route and watched their reactions with interest.

Let's be charitable and say that some of my guests were in a state of culture shock cum jet lag—they frequently expressed fears that they would be mugged on every corner, even though I reassured them that I took this walk regularly by day and night without incident. Or they insisted they would be infected by garbage lying in the streets, or they simply freaked out when I showed them some more authentic aspects of Chinatown. The foolishness of the American tourist abroad is legendary, but I had trouble differentiating this from some of my guests' behavior. But if Europeans cannot tolerate such a mixture of peoples and customs in New York, how will they do so in Europe?

And so, let's come back to our main theme. What are we really supposed to imagine will happen when any Portuguese or Irish can transfer their homes to Germany, when Greeks or Spaniards can go job- and home-hunting in green and pleasant England, when Danes can not merely vacation in but move their lives to Greece? I have spent twelve years in Europe and am well aware that some of its cities possess somewhat cosmopolitan sections, but I do not know of a single European country ready or able to conceive of, much less deal with, the multi-national mosaic I daily encounter in New York. On the contrary, I can think of several reasons why Europeans are totally unprepared for such an eventuality, not the least of which are Enoch Powell in Britain, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, and the highly unpredictable situation in Germany. Yet it is close to this level of ethnic sophistication which awaits Europe, if not in 1992, then a few decades later.

In preparing this article, I raised some of these points with an EEC spokesperson. I do not believe she can have fully understood me, for she merely responded that the Community has a "full three years" in which to coordinate procedures for the changeover. This would involve making language courses readily available to all Europeans who, she assured me, were far better at languages than Americans. She seemed surprised when I told her that over thirty million Americans (or more than the combined population of Portugal, Greece, Denmark and Ireland) spoke a language other than (or besides) English. I was also unable to persuade her that her contention that Europeans handled languages better than Americans might be due to localized class factors not prevalent through all of Europe, might be essentially racist in character, and lacked scientific proof. Nor did my key question receive an answer: precisely how does the EEC, in less than three years, plan to dispose of problems which the US has not been able to resolve in over a century?

On the electronic side I also cannot help wondering if some of the miraculous claims made for various pending translation systems and software may not be tied to this 1992 pie-in-the-sky. The language problems created by any such total union are almost beyond imagination, and it would be convenient to assume that many of them will simply be solved by computers. But it would also be convenient to find another livable planet right nearby—I suspect the odds are about equal for both prospects.

I should add that while New York offers the richest experience of this type, such strolls are quite available in other parts of the country. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language contains a brief description of one in Boston, and in other parts of the country—such as the Southwest, it might become a linguistic drive instead.

But my walk is not quite over. Or rather, even though I have now returned uptown, my linguistic experiences are scarcely ended. If anything an even richer assortment of languages awaits me at home, where 36 television channels (12 standard and 24 cable) plus a hundred or more radio stations offer me an assortment of language and culture quite beyond the imagination of most Europeans, who judge American entertainment solely by the likes of Dallas and Dynasty, perhaps because such offerings have proved popular in their own countries. I also have the choice of hearing classical songs, operas and oratorios sung in foreign languages 24 hours a day on three different stations. Or if I feel the need for interactive communication, I can power up my computer and log onto CompuServe's Foreign Language Education Forum ("FLEFO"), where I regularly carry on conversations in several languages. And out of hundreds of local more modest Bulletin Boards, there are a few that also offer international conferences. If I am feeling both masochistic and spendthrift—this no longer happens too often—I can access Le Minitele, go into"Le Bar," and be told in no uncertain terms by some French teenager that I am nothing but an American barbarian cowboy. Ho Hum.

It still seems to me that computers and telecommunication can in the long run have a positive influence, if only because they may finally be able to break through some of the vast mental gulf that still seems to separate people of different nations and show us all that we are all really living together in a building with very thin walls, so thin that we can hear each other moving next door, listen to each other's conversations, and even begin to anticipate each other's answers. If this can begin to happen, then perhaps 1992 can finally turn out to be helpful, not just for Europe but for the entire world.

This article is Copyright © 1990
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.
All Rights Reserved.

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