Friday, October 3, 2014

How To Define American Vocabulary Words

I had an interesting question from a student today. Three days a week I teach 11th grade English at a nearby high school. One of my classes is a resource class, which is generally neither here nor there, except that many of my students struggle academically.

One of the regular weekly assignments I have my students do is to define five vocabulary words. (They also look up a synonym, an antonym, and use the word in a sentence.) The words are probably a bit more on the complicated side, but I want to introduce my students to new words, and this is one of the ways I could think of to do so. We just finished the third week of vocabulary words, and before class, a student approached me and said that he had noticed that most of the words we'd been going over so far had their origins in the Middle East. This was an American literature class, though, he noted, so why were the origins of so many of these words of foreign origins? By no means was the student being disrespectful; he seemed genuinely curious as to why I would be introducing words of foreign origin into a class in which American literature was meant to be the focus.

I've been contemplating the student's comment. First, I'm not sure how many words originated in the United States. (I suppose if I were going to be pedantic, I could have made a comment about words originating from other American countries, given that there are two American continents.) I'm certain there are quite a few, but these words might likely be predominantly Native American words. I didn't consider this until much later, anyway. (And then there's the whole concept of English, of which there is more than one: There's American English and British English and South African English and New Zealand English and quite a few others, too, I'm sure. One is not more correct than another; culture and geography, among other factors, affect the growth and development of language.)

Nevertheless, I said that languages often shared words, and that words grew from other languages, but he didn't look convinced. So I asked him how long his family had been in the country. He wasn't sure, he replied, but at least as long as he had been alive. So, I said, theoretically your ancestors could have come from Germany or France, right? (He nodded.) Does your family having come from other places make you less American because of your origins? He said no, it wouldn't. I said the same would be true for words that came to us from other parts of the world. Even though they have different origins, they're now considered part of the English language. He seemed to accept that answer, but I'm not sure to what extent.

I got to thinking about how we do in fact define "English" words (or, for that matter, "American" words). If words created in one country are absconded and used by other peoples, is that word then still technically American or English? Are only words that have Anglo-Saxon roots English? Are only words that have Native American roots American (especially given that Native Americans did not originate in North America)?