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Press #3 for linguistic diversity

Mark Mardell | 22:15 UK time, Thursday, 10 September 2009

"Why the Hell Should I Press #1 to Speak English?" reads one T-shirt on sale in the tacky but fun resort of Ocean City.

I have come from multi-lingual Belgium, where French and Dutch is always on telephonic offer, so the ubiquity of "Press 2 for Spanish" here in the US hardly surprises me. Before I arrived I had done my research and knew that Spanish speakers were the second-largest language group in the States and growing fast.

But I had not quite realised the sheer presence of Hispanic people in the USA. In any public space, at least where I live, you do not have to stand long before you hear Spanish spoken.

I like it, it speaks to me of long holidays exploring my favourite European country. But I have been startled - and on a practical level, frustrated - to find that quite a few people serving in shops and restaurant can hardly speak English at all.

I suppose the T-shirt shows that some feel that one of the guiding American principles - you can all come here but you've got to fit in - has been broken.

This rather ignores the fact that the Spanish were behind the founding of what many consider the first permanent settlement in what would become the USA, in St Augustine, Florida.

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One riposte to that T-shirt might be: "Pedro Menéndez de Avilés got here first".

A man not known for his gentleness, he might press more than #2 if he saw somebody parading their prejudice down Ocean City broadwalk.

Maybe he would be proud to fill out one of those official forms and declare himself "Hispanic": a separate racial category.

But it strikes me as odd that someone born in Spain would be considered in a separate racial category from an Italian or German, but the same as, say, a Colombian or a Dominican of largely African descent.

Of course, maybe it a cultural thing, but I am not sure what the forms are trying to identify or prove.

For "Hispanic" is a an interesting word: it refers to anyone from the Iberian peninsular or their former territories. But it is Latin in origin.

While "African-American" sounds to me a very modern formation, "Hispanic Roman" was apparently a common category in the Roman empire. Indeed, the Emperor Trajan - another man of a certain temper - was described as such.

His was an empire bound together not by culture or identity but law and language.

And anyone who wanted to do anything other than "Press 1 to speak Latin" might have ended up depicted on his column.

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