The Language Wars


Winter 2003 / MW 3:15 – 5:05 / Room 217 Building 200


Professor Andrea Lunsford                                           723-0631 (FAX)

223 Bldg. 460                                                    

723-0682 (phone)                                                        Office hours: T 9 – 11:00; W 1-2



Course Description:  While the United States was founded on principles of linguistic plurality (as every five-cent piece proclaims, “e pluribus unum”), the English language has long held dominance in the U.S. and, eventually, most power came to be associated with one particular form of English, often referred to as “standard” English.  This seminar will examine the long struggle to share the wealth of linguistic power and to craft more inclusive theories of language use, asking how crucial questions of gender, race, and class have both shaped and responded to the “language wars” of recent years.  Along the way, we will consider powerful varieties of English at work in contemporary fiction, music, and film.  NB:  This course fulfills the WIM requirement and the diversity requirement for undergraduate students.


Course Texts:


Anzaldúa, Gloria.  Borderlands / LaFrontera.  San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.

Crystal, David.  Language Death.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Lopez, Diana.  Sofia’s Saints.  Tempe:  Bilingual Review P, 2002.

Schroeder, Chris, Helen Fox, and Patricia Bizzell.  AltDis: Alternative Discourses and

     the Academy.  Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2002.

Silko, Leslie Marmon.  Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit.  New York:

     Touchstone, 1996.

A packet of readings available in my office or the Stanford Writing Center.  Each

     student will make his or her own copy of this packet.


Course Assignments:


All participants will contribute to the work of this course in four ways: 

  • First, each class after the first week will begin with one or more of your brief written reflections on current reading.  For this part of our coursework, the class will be divided in half, with one half writing reflections on Monday’s readings, the other half responding to Wednesday’s readings.
  • These brief reflective pieces may well lead you to a topic for your major term project, an exploration of one particular aspect of the language wars—such as, for example, the role gender, race, and/or class plays in the production or reception of any text or texts we have examined, in any medium—or in another text or texts you propose to examine instead.  This term assignment is wide open, and I hope you will identify a subject early on that fascinates you and pursue that subject throughout the term. Important due dates are as follows:


      Proposal for term project:  Wednesday, January 22

Conferences to discuss project:  Week of February 3. 

Draft of term project:  Monday, February 24.

Final project:  March 12.

  • We will be attending to ways in which “standard” language has been resisted and/or challenged by a number of writers, and we will also be looking at parts of three films (The Color Purple, Daughters of the Dust, and Do the Right Thing) with an eye to cinematic techniques that focus on these issues as well.  I am hopeful that participants in this seminar will bring in other examples, from film, video, television, or music, to add to our collection of challenging discourses.
  • Finally, if the size of the seminar permits, you will prepare and deliver a formal presentation on one subject of our term’s study, working alone or with another student in class.


A Note on Assignments

            Your term project, reflections, and class presentations offer you multiple opportunities to think about the way the politics and power of standard academic English has shaped your experience of learning and living.  Toward that end, you may decide to do a completely traditional term project—a critical overview of the English Only movement in the last fifteen years; a critical reading of the work of one writer; an analysis of the representation of language use in one set of texts, etc.  You may also, however, decide to push against such standard academic practices, to explore and experiment widely with language, genre, media, and style.  This is your chance to take some major stylistic chances!


Course Schedule


Week One


W  -  1/8:         Syllabus distributed; in class writing


Week Two


M  -  1/13:       Readings:

      • Robert Pattison, “Word against Empire: Literacy and Power,” from On Literacy: the Politics of the Word from Homer to the Age of Rock
      • David R. Slavitt, “The Decline and Fall of Latin.”
      • Ruth Evans, “Historicizing Postcolonial Criticism: Cultural Difference and the Vernacular,” from The Idea of the Vernacular

Group 1 reflections on reading due

W  -  1/15:       Readings:

      • David Crystal, Language Death

Group 2 reflections on reading due

Class Presentation _____________________________

Week Three


M  -  1/20        Martin Luther King Day.  No classes scheduled    


W  -  1/22        Readings:

      • James Slevin, “Figuring Pocahontas” and “Educating the Other,” from Introducing English.
      • Charles Ferguson and Shirley Heath, “Introduction” from Language in the USA

Group 1 reflections on reading due

Class Presentation _________________________________

                        Term project proposal due in class


Week Four


M  -  1/27        Readings:

      • Harvey Daniels, “In the Aftermath of the ELA: Stripping Language Minorities of Their Rights,” from NOT Only English
      • Victor Villanueva, “On the Rhetoric and Precedents of Racism”
      • Dahlia Lithwick, “Personal Truths and Legal Fictions”

Group 1 reflections due

Class Presentation_____________________________

W  -  1/29        Readings:

      • John Baugh, “Ebonic Genesis,” from Beyond Ebonics.
      • Geneva Smitherman, “White English in Blackface or, Who Do I Be? from Talkin that Talk: Language, Culture, and Education in African America
      • Peter Elbow, chapter 11 in Alt.Dis

Group 2 reflections due

                        Class Presentation__________________________________


Week Five:  Schedule Conferences


M  -  2/3          Screenings:

      • The Color Purple
      • Daughters of the Dust
      • Do the Right Thing

Group 1 reflections due

Class Presentation_____________________________________


W  -  2/5          Readings:

      • Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera

Group 2 reflections due

Class Presentation___________________________________

Week Six


M  -  2/10        Readings:

      • Diana Lopez, Sofia’s Saints

Group 1 reflections due

Class Presentation_________________________________


W  -  2/12        Readings:

      • Chapters 1, 2, and 3 from Alt.Dis
      • Beverly Moss, “Intersections of Race and Class in the Academy,
         from Coming to Class: Pedagogy and the Social Class of Teachers

Group 2 reflections due

Class Presentation________________________________


Week 7


M  -  2/17        Presidents’ Day.  No classes scheduled


W  -  2/19        Readings:

      • Patricia Sullivan, “Passing: a Family Dissemblance,” in Coming to Class
      • Michelle Cliff, “A Journey into Speech” and “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write It in Fire,” from The Graywolf Annual Five: Multi-Cultural Literacy

Group 2 reflections due

Class Presentation__________________________________________


Week 8          


M  -  2/24        Readings:

      • Leslie Marmon Silko, Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit

Class Presentation_________________________________________

Draft of term project due in class


W  -  2/26        Readings:

      • Silko’s Yellow Woman continued
      • Nora Naranjo-Morse, from Mud Woman

Group 1 reflections due

Class Presentation________________________________________

Week 9


M  -  3/3          Readings:

      • Winston Weathers, from An Alternate Style
      • Z. Walker, “A Grammar B Handout”
      • Jonathan Safran Foer, “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease”
      • Michael Armstrong, “The Leap of Imagination: an Essay in Interpretation”

Group 2 reflections due

Class Presentation__________________________________________



W  -  3/5          Readings:

      • David Foster Wallace, “Tense Present,” from Harper’s
      • Jennifer 8. Lee, “Nu Shortcuts in School R 2 Much 4 Teachers”
      • Susan Griffin, “The Red Shoes,” from The Eros of Everyday Life

In-class writing:  where do we stand?




Week 10


M  -  3/10        Presentation of term projects    

                        Final draft of term project due


W  -  3/12        Presentation of term projects