In the Romance languages — Italian, French, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish — every noun is gendered. Every person, place, thing, idea is either masculine, feminine, or neuter(-ed?) I was not born into any of these lingual cultures. I was born into a world constructed of non-gendered words. The world that made me was as sexed as the bricks that made up my Catholic schools. From the outside, though, I can only imagine the existential rabbit holes I would have entered, trying to figure out what was gendered and why it was gendered so. I remember my pubescent years being difficult enough without the added anxiety of whether my guilt-ridden feminine Catholic ass sitting on a masculine chair makes me an unquestionable slut. Baby Jesus had enough to cry over without my tochus being involved, thank you very much.
Facetiousness aside, as a feminist I am grateful for Standard English’s lack of gendered nouns. Simone de Beauvoir, pioneering feminist and born and raised francophone, noted in The Second Sex that:
The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers. In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity. (Introduction)
If one believes that language makes us, then to born into a reality without a lingual gendered presumption is plus (even though Anglo-American society did and does equate “human” with man in language, thought and practice). If your reality is not built, like stacked Lego bricks, on gender, then perhaps one has an edge in relinquishing the vice grip patriarchy has upon your consciousness. One has a better chance, or a greater privilege, in recognizing and resisting patriarchy. If nothing else, it is one less hassle in a hassle-filled life. Then again, just because Standard English lacks gendered nouns does not mean it lacks identity.
The writings of Richard Rodriguez and Gloria Anzaldúa, hispanophones writing in and on Stndard English, bring to light that Standard English has a constructed identity not dissimilar from that of a Latino man or Mestiza woman. Perhaps Rodriguez and Anzaldúa’s fraught relationships with Standard English stems in part with the language’s relationship to them and not simply the writers’ relationship to Standard English. The authors have different relationships and different feelings (or, perhaps, different types of mixed feelings) towards Standard English and the Spanish languages, Standard and creoles, they were made in. Examining how these authors describe and feel about Standard English and the other languages they were raised in/speak should provide insights into what Standard English’s identity is.
One of the most apparent differences between the authors is that Rodriguez’s piece is much more subtle and implying in what English is, whereas Anzaldúa directly states what English is. These different approaches to a shared theme — the effects Standard English had on forming their sense of self — signifies different perspectives on what Standard English is. Rodriguez in “The Desire of Achievement” portrays Standard English as a source of power. As a child, a life phase defined by its immense vulnerability to others, Rodriguez took pride in “correct[ing] the ‘simple’ grammatical mistakes of [his] parents” (598). His understanding of Standard English allows him to create a hierarchical relationship to his parents in this regard, where young Rodriguez is clearly the superior. Rather than reprimand this somewhat snotty behavior, his parents encourage this behavior. His mother asking Rodriguez for reading material and her whisper[ing] that [Rodriguez] had ‘shown’ the gringos“enforce the notion that Standard English is a tool of hierarchy building (602). Not just hierarchy building, but wall building.
Young Rodriguez discusses how Standard English created “two very different worlds” (598). Yet instead of being a bridge between worlds, à la Bridge to Terabithia, Standard English is more akin to the Berlin Wall, meant to obstruct the view of the other so as to keep one firmly planted in one over the other. Young Rodriguez chose the world of his school over his home. He began “imitating [his grammar school teachers’] accents, using their diction, trusting their every direction. The very first facts they dispense, I grasped with awe. Any book they told me to read, I read — then waited for them to tell me which books I enjoyed” (601). Standard English is controlling and manipulative: Rodriguez’s “[m]emory gently caressed each word of praise bestowed in the classroom,” coaxing him to submission with validation and a sense of worth (601). Part of that coaxing also comes from Rodriguez’s implication that Standard English is attainable or material, as much so as a grammar school trophy or college diploma. The way he covets the joy he finds in “first-learning” to himself, hoard[ing] the pleasure of learning” reminds me of the Gollum character from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Rodriguez clearly covets the language, which is not inherently problematic (602). What is problematic is the hierarchical value he, as an adult, still places on Standard English over any other language/dialect.
Rodriguez says that “It was not that I ever thought they were stupid, though stupidly I took for granted their enormous native intelligence” (602). Several weeks after reading and re-reading this piece and I still have no Earthly idea what “native intelligence” means or is meant to mean. I am not going to question a grown adult when he says he does not think his parents are stupid, as that is not place to insert value judgement. I do, however, assert the right to question whether the notion of a native versus domestic intelligence is not implicitly establishing separate values to intelligence. This questioning is further validated after the anecdote about Rodriguez’s mother’s typing job for the governor. Int he advertisement for the position, “A knowledge of Spanish [is] required” (603). Yet, Spanish is clearly the lesser language at the workplace because the mother’s Spanish accent is too thick for her to be allowed to answer the phones, while her typo in spelling “guerilla” as “gorilla” is a fireable offense (604). Rodriguez introduces the idea that Standard English wears many forms: written and verbal, native and foreign. In light of that, his praise of his parent’s “native intelligence” and not simply “their intelligence” in discomforting and saddening. This discrepancy highlights another quality of English: it is transforming as much as it is transformative. Standard English transforms in the mouths of its speaker, from proper to improper, and similtaneously transforms its user: “A primary reason for my success in the classroom was that I couldn’t forget that schooling was changing me and separating me from the life I enjoyed before becoming a student [sic.]” (598). Standard English has transformed Richard Rodriguez: whether it not is actually has or that he believes he has makes no different. He became what he believed, and what he believed is the infaliability of Standard English.
If there is any writer of English who has remained uncorruptable to the siren call of Standard English, that person is Gloria Anzaldúa. Her direct remarks on what Standard English is and how it works stand in stark contrast to Rodriguez’s. Furthermore, her intertwining of Chicana Spanish with Standard English (without providing translation for non-Spanish readers and vice versa) is a stunning deflation of the egos of those who hold either Standard Spanish or Standard English as being of greater value. Take cover: Anzaldúa is firing shots at everyone.
In regards to Standard English, Anzaldúa protrays it as oppressively specific, a language where one must be fit into it, even if it means cutting out her “wild tongue” (54). Learning English in grammar school and the Pan American University, she is critiques as “talking back” to her teachers when she is only telling her teacher how to say her name (53). The overbearingness of Standard English is not just felt at home, for “[her] mother[…was]mortified that I spoke English like a Mexican” (54). Standard English, therefore, has certain requirements that cannot be bent. The penalties for not tailoring one’s self is specific: “talking back to my mother[…]having a big mouth, questioning, carrying tales are all signs of being mal criada. In my culture they are all words that are derogatory is applied to women — I’ve never heard them applied to men” (54). “Having a big mouth” and “questioning” are as much derogatory terms given to women over men in American culture as it is in Mexican culture. More than just having specific punishments, Standard English punishes specifically: it punishes women differently than it does men. Perhaps, then, Standard English is gendered. While not having grammatical rules that assign words a gender, Standard English creates gendered punished and expectations for its speaker. Like Rodriguez, Anzaldúa suggests that Standard English transforms its users —unlike Rodriguez, Anzaldúa says that transformation is that of the punished.
Anzaldúa also differs from Rodriguez in giving ethnographic identifiers to Standard English. Standard English is, apparently, American “(If you want to be American, speak ‘American.’); male (“Language [not specifically stated which] is a male discourse”; and a colonizer (for when Anzaldúa speaks English she is sometimes critiques as speaking “the oppressor’s language[;] by speaking English, you’re ruining the Spanish language”) (53, 54, 55). Standard English has a profile: a male American of a colonizing (white) race. That profile is the same as the most privileged individual in both Mexican and American societies —I suspect this is not a coincidence. Neither is it a coincidence that the language Tex-Mex, a name derived from and used by those living on the border of these two nations and societies, is a language birthed from “the pressures on Spanish speakers to adapt to English” (57). Anzaldúa makes a strong case for her belief that “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity — I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself” (59). If one is pressured into valuing a language that is oppressive to them and their identity, than how can one have pride in his/her/theirself?
One cannot. In this way, Anzaldúa agrees with Rodriguez in that English is a combative, dividing language. Even when it takes the facade of being concilatory — chicanas, according to Anzaldúa, will often speak English with Latinas and Mexicanas because “English is a neutral language” — the fact that Standard English is made the default and not chosen is telling of its coerciveness (58). Anzaldúa says that North American Hispanics “use our language differences against each other,” echoing how Rodriguez used Standard English against his parents as a child (58). Once again, Standard English is not a bridge, but a tool to keep others a part. However, where Rodriguez is combative, Anzaldua refuses in her essay to fight her people. She instead fights the problem. She combats the oppression. She speaks eight languages and not one, alternating to fit the scenario and people around her: not to fit into the context, but to create a larger one (55). Anzaldúa exemplifies her nonconformity in the use of multiple languages, sans translation, in her essay. This essay’s language, structure, and existence are an act of rebellion. Furthermore, one of those langauges is Pachuco, the “language of rebellion, both against Standard Spanish and Standard English” (56). In this way, Anzaldúa’s work often reminds me of the Frida Kahlo painting The Two Fridas. The two Fridas, one representing her German heritage, the other her indigenous one, are clearly joined, despite the cutting of ties (or, rather, vein) by the German Frida. The artist Frida, the mestiza, paints the two different personifications of herself as joined, despite their desire to be so or not. Anzaldúa does the same in her essay: despite whether her forked tongue, one prong English and the other Spanish, want to share a tongue, Anzaldúa forcs them. She resists the easy way, the society tells her to. She has a double consciousness, yet acts consciously in being her most authentic self. Talk about resistance to power.
Standard English has an identity: it is in dialogical performance with its users. Rodriguez and Anzaldúa’s essays inform their readers as to the identity of their Standard English and their relationship to it. Despite their varying relations and feelings towards the language, their works both allow the reader to see where they stand in their relationship to their language and put them one step closer to equal footing.