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The Linguistic Acknowledgment of Human Identity

When a large sign directing patients and ambulances to the entrance of a hospital’s emergency room has the words EMERGENCY and EMERGENCIA emblazoned on it in neon-lit majuscules, the first (in English) above the second (in Spanish), one might justifiably question why any literate Spanish speaker would require the second for guidance at all, the meaning being completely transparent from the English version alone despite the minor orthographic discrepancy.

There are two reasons for the seeming redundancy that suggest themselves, one practical, the other ontological and axiological. First, the occurrence of the Spanish version below the English signifies that, though subordinate in status, Spanish is spoken by at least some members of the hospital staff. Second, and more importantly, it is a sign––in the Peircean as well as the quotidian sense––that acknowledges soundlessly to Latino patients that their cultural status as speakers of a minority language in contemporary America does not ipso facto render them a quantité négligeable at precisely the vulnerable moment when they appear as suffering human beings most in need of succor.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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