Babel’s Secret in New York

Babel's Secret in New York

The story of America’s national unity and the Homogenized Baby is not without interest at this point. If memory serves, it was on a prewar February day that the office boy was told to run down to the big newspaper stand on the corner and bring back the current issue of half a dozen foreign-language dailies.

Some one had made a speech the night before on New York as an un-American city. The speaker offered in evidence the babel of tongues you hear on the subway and in front of the Broadway movie palaces. He was even more deeply impressed by the numerous publications he saw displayed on the Broadway newsstands in outlandish tongues and alphabets. Our foreign-language papers are a long-standing grievance. As far back as one can remember they have been deplored as an obstacle to the assimilation of the newer Americans. It is, on the face of things, a charge not to be lightly dismissed.

That particular February morning, however, it occurred to some one to raise a question. Just how foreign are the city’s foreign-language newspapers? How much do they differ from their local contemporaries written in the language of the country, and to what extent are they alike? It seemed a good idea to send out the office boy for half a dozen specimens and then mobilize all the available linguistic talent in the office for an intensive study of the material. It would be a good test not merely of the foreign language press, but perhaps of the foreignness of New York in general.

Babel's Secret in New York

Even before the boy came back with his assortment of papers it was decided that for the purposes of our inquiry the front page was of comparatively little importance. It was a critical day in the war news and a person was prepared to find the first page in all the papers pretty much the same. Minor differences within the general context of the day’s war news there would be, no doubt. The relative emphasis would be determined by the particular reading public — German, Hungarian, Italian, Yiddish, Greek, Russian. According to the special public there would be special dispatches. But on the whole the front page need not long detain us. The research must concentrate on the inside pages, and in particular on the advertising columns.

People’s opinions about a world war or anything else are apt to be expressed in general formulas which they borrow from others. People reveal their own selves in what they eat, drink and wear, in their cultural practices and their recreations. It is commonly said that the heart of a newspaper, or at least the heart of the newspaper owner, is in the advertising pages.

When the boy came back with his half-dozen papers, then, the front page received just a glance. For that matter, if we had only this minute not forsworn all argument from the news pages we might take some time to point out the exceedingly American look of the front page makeup. A person standing far enough away to make it impossible to identify the particular language would find it hard to say if these were foreign-language newspapers at all.

Five out of the six papers that morning had a bold ribbon headline running all the way across the page, and four of the six papers had a double ribbon. Below the main headlines, five out of six papers had the familiar bold-faced interior headlines, two or three columns wide, scattered all over the page. It is a make-up which gives to a newspaper page the appearance of being divided into squat chunks of type instead of the traditional columns.

If a person stood far enough away to get only the general effect without recognizing language or alphabet it would be extremely difficult to say that morning which was Staats-Zeitung und Herold, which was Il Progresso ItaloAmericano, which was Magyar Nepszava or Voice of Hungary, which was Russky Golos or Voice of Russia, which was Atlantis, or the daily voice of the Greek-Americans, and which were The Jewish Daily Forward and the Jewish Day; and whether they were not any or all of them Mr. Hearst Journal-American.

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