Which languages?

“This is America. Speak English, or go back to where you came from!”

I hear that too often from Trumpian Americans who feel threatened by immigrants and others whom they don’t understand. The best story about that was told by a Navajo speaking her native language in the supermarket, but that’s not the topic of this post. A recent essay by the inestimable Arnold Zwicky got me thinking of what we speakers of English as a first language should do to make our writing understandable by those who are not fluent in English, especially in situations where the details are crucial, such as medical prescriptions. Zwicky writes about translations provided by the nationwide company ExpressScripts (which I know because it provided my prescriptions for a few months before I went on Medicare): “Express Scripts presumably knows who it’s serving — in particular, the communities in its customer base that use languages other than English.”

So now you’re dying to know what are the languages for which ExpressScripts provides translations. It’s not the list in the image above, which consists of the non-English languages most commonly spoken in Toronto. Zwicky finds the ExpressScripts list… well… a bit odd:

Albanian/Shqip, Arabic, Bengali, Cambodian-Mon-Khmer, Chinese Mandarin, Chinese Cantonese, French/Française, German/Deutsch, Greek, Gujarati, French Creole/Creyole Ayisyen [Haitian Creole], Italian/Italiano, Korean, Pennsylvania Dutch/Deitsch, Polish/Język polski, Portuguese/Portuguȇs, Russian, Spanish/Español, Tagalog, Urdu, Vietnamese/Tiếng Việt, Yiddish

Passing over the question of which languages are named in two or three different ways (you can figure that out yourself), we wonder how ExpressScripts selected those particular languages. Zwicky is surprised (as am I) that ExpressScripts finds that they have more customers who speak Pennsylvania Dutch (a dialect of German, BTW) than Dutch or Swedish. And Yiddish makes the list — in 2020! What about Hindi? Nope, not on the list.

Anyway, read the entire essay — it’s short — to see further discussion. It’s still a surprising list.

Categories: Linguistics