Language and Culture Claiming Nationhood

Speak White

Speak white
It sounds so good when you
Speak of Paradise Lost
And of the gracious and anonymous profile that trembles
In Shakespeare’s sonnets

We’re an uncultured stammering race
But we are not deaf to the genius of a language
Speak with the accent of Milton and Byron and Shelley and Keats
Speak white
And forgive us our only answer
Being the raucous songs of our ancestors
And the sorrows of Nelligan

Speak white

Talk about this and that
Tell us about Magna Carta
Or the Lincoln Memorial
The grey charm of the Thames
The pink waters of the Potomac
Tell us about your traditions
As a people we don’t really shine
But we’re quite capable of appreciating
All the significance of crumpets
Or the Boston Tea Party

But when you really speak white
When you get down to brass tacks

To talk about gracious living
And speak of standing in life
And the Great Society
A bit stronger then, speak white
Raise your foremen’s voices
We’re a bit hard of hearing
We live too close to the machines
And we only hear the sound of our breathing over the tools.

Speak white and loud
So that we can hear you
From St-Henri to St-Domingue
What an admirable tongue
For hiring
Giving orders
Setting the time for working yourself to death
And for the pause that refreshes
And invigorates the dollar

Speak white
Tell us that God is a great big shot
And that we’re paid to trust him
Speak white

Talk to us about production profits and percentages
Speak white
It’s a rich langauge
For buying
But for selling
But for selling your soul
But for selling out

Speak white
Big deal

But to tell you about
The eternity of a day on strike
To tell the story of
How a race of servants live
But for us to come home at night
At the time that the sun snuffs itself out over the backstreets
But to tell you yes that the sun is setting yes
Every day of our lives to the east of your empires
There’s nothing to match a language of swearwords
Our none-too-clean parlure
Greasy and oil-stained.

Speak white
Be easy in your words
We’re a race that holds grudges
But let’s not criticize anyone
For having a monopoly
On correcting language

In Shakespeare’s soft tongue
With the accent of Longfellow
Speak a pure and atrociously white French
Like in Vietnam, like in the Congo
Speak impeccable German
A yellow star between your teeth
Speak Russian speak call to order speak repression
Speak white
It is a universal language
We were born to understand it
With its teargas words
With its nightstick words

Speak white
Tell us again about Freedom and Democracy

We know that liberty is a black word
Just as poverty is black
And just as blood mixes with dust in the steets of Algiers
And Little Rock

Speak white
From Westminster to Washington take it in turn
Speak white like they do on Wall Street
White like they do in Watts
Be civilized
And understand us when we speak of circumstances
When you ask us politely
How do you do
And we hear you say
We’re doing all right
We’re doing fine
Are not alone

We know
That we are not alone


This week, I wanted to post this video of Michèle Lalonde reading her poem “Speak White”, which is both in English and in French (mostly in French), which is the reason why I have also included the English translation made by Albert Herring. Let me know if you also would like to have the written version of the poem. After talking about assimilation and adjustment this week, I was interested to look at resistance and the difference between “nation” and “state” as explored by Appadurai. To give some background to this poem, “Speak White” was written in Quebec in the 1960s to condemn the Anglo-American economic exploitation, which is represented by the jeer “Speak White”, which would be told to Québécois who chose not to speak the English language. The poem is also highly nationalist and an emblem of separatism within Quebec. The poem’s creation and first reading was in between the first (in 1980) and second (in 1995) referendums in the province of Quebec, which were dealing with the question of Quebec becoming its own state and negotiating sovereignty with Canada. The video is interesting to me in that it portrays the emotionality that comes with nationalism and how languages can be used to establish boundaries and differences between certain nations and/or states, and how this plays out into a certain transnational scope.

Quebec nationalism is mostly based on differences in language, culture and, historically, political ideals, not on economics. The poem thus denounces oppression and the attempts of English Canadians to assimilate the Québécois (or French Canadians, depending on the time period), which generally no longer take place, as well as linguistic, economic differences. In the reading, Appadurai mentions how “[t]he relationship between states and nations is everywhere an embattled one” and that “while nations (or more properly groups with ideas about nationhood) seek to capture or co-opt states and state power, states simultaneously seek to capture and monopolize ideas about nationhood” (39). This last statement seems very accurate in the case of the Quebec/Canada conflict, in that certain Québécois (almost 50% in the last referendum) are claiming power and sovereignty over their nation because of linguistic and cultural differences that they see as boundaries while Canada is promoting and advertising itself as a bilingual, accepting and united country, even though it contains multiple cultures that clash somewhat and sometimes. Both are thus claiming things that are not necessarily accurate or true, using historical or current events in order to prove or make their point. This poetry reading by Michèle Lalonde is symbolical of transnationalism in that it shows the many frictions that are upheld by a minority claiming its unique nationhood and, possibly, statehood, and shows that transnationalism is not only about adjustment and assimilation, but also about revolt, conflict, and memories.

Andreanne Breton

3 thoughts on “Language and Culture Claiming Nationhood”

  1. This poem gave me shivers. The switching back and forth between Quebec French and English made the invasion of the English language truly feel like an invasion. The lines:
    “Speak white
    It is a universal language
    We were born to understand it
    With its teargas words
    With its nightstick words”
    make the “white” language fearful, relating it to weapons of brutality. The English words cut into the poem like teargas and nightsticks. The poem does a great job of showing, as Andreanne said, that transnationalism may involve crossing boundaries in violent and conflict-ridden ways, even on the linguistic level.
    -Freddy B


  2. This is a deeply powerful poem, and I’m sure the sentiment is shared by countless oppressed peoples who have been mocked, harassed, and even attacked or killed for speaking their native languages rather than that of their oppressors. Looking at imperialism and nationalism in terms of language is particularly interesting to me, especially after taking linguistics classes. From the point of view of a linguist, no language is inherently better or worse than another, but, as Anderson described in our reading, language has been used throughout history as a tool of conquest and tyranny. At the same time, it serves as a uniting factor and a symbol of pride and cultural identification, in defiance of the homogenizing effects of empire. (The first example that comes to mind is of Okinawan schoolchildren being punished for speaking their own language (derided as a “dialect”) rather than mainland Japanese; since WWII there has been a resurgence in Okinawan-language media, especially music.)


  3. I also found the poem really powerful. I’m interested as well in the times when the poet speaks of canonized English writers as a form of cultural oppression, in light of our discussion today about the Ramanzi reading. Especially in the second stanza, it is clear from this poem that “mononationalistic” definition of an author is not the only way that such canonization can be oppressive: here just the fact that these authors write in English is an example of how their writing can be used against that of the Québécois.


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