How to Tame a Wild Tongue

by Gloria Anzaldúa

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 804

In an essay about language and identity, Gloria Anzaldúa uses “tongue” both literally and metaphorically. She uses the concept of “twin skin” for ethnic and linguistic identity. The essay, like the author, is bilingual. She writes in English and Spanish, interspersing words and phrases, and alternating sentences and paragraphs approximating her ordinary language use and thought processes. In Spanish, lengua means both “tongue” and “language,” whereas in English, “tongue” is an additional term for “language.” She also explores the idea that Spanish is many languages, not one unitary language; her discussion includes Chicano, Pachuco, and Tex-Mex identities and tongues.

Beginning with the title itself, the author plays with literary devices and with genres. The ideas of “taming” and “wild” connect both language use and the speaker’s body to animals, as the title phrase is commonly applied to horses. With the “how to” phrase, Anzaldúa leads the reader to expect that what follows will be an instruction manual. Instead, the author provides a highly personal, autobiographical essay that includes musings on her childhood and other people’s efforts—largely unsuccessful ones—to tame her. She argues, however, that a tongue, unlike a horse, cannot be tamed. Rather, to silence a person requires cutting out their tongue.

Anzaldúa emphasizes the physical damage that enforced language use—such as the English-only policies in her schools—inflicts. Quoting Ray Gwyn Smith, Anzaldúa stresses the violence in “robbing a people of its language.” Her concept of “linguistic terrorism” is particularly significant. She expands on the idea of enforced language use as violence. Internalizing the belief that they speak incorrectly has harmed Chicano people: “Repeated attacks on our native tongue diminish our sense of self.” Asserting her own reclamation of language, Anzaldúa insists that she will no longer be ashamed, but will use her “serpent’s tongue”—the voice of a woman and poet, and of her lesbian sexuality.

To emphasize the connection between the literal and figurative levels, Anzaldúa begins with an anecdote about her tongue—the organ in her mouth—during a dental treatment session. She ponders the dentist’s declaration of the need to “control” her tongue with a foreign object (cotton) inside her mouth. Throughout the essay, she addresses numerous ways that her tongue has been controlled, not only in school but at home. Importantly, Anzaldúa emphasizes that both her “native tongue,” Spanish, and the “reigning tongue,” English, were subjected to other people’s rules and control.

Anzaldúa raises a central paradox of Mexican American, or Chicano, Spanish: it is a highly creative, constantly changing language, but also a repository of archaic words and phrases. While her essay is not primarily a historical analysis, she discusses some of the journey that Spanish made in Mexico and what is now the US Southwest—elements that make it highly distinct from “standard (formal, Castilian) Spanish.” Rather than viewing it as incorrect or inferior, as many people told her over the years, Anzaldúa stresses the inherent creativity of language evolution—a process based in the need to survive.

Un lenguaje que corresponde a un modo de vivir. Chicano Spanish is not incorrect; it is a living language.

The author considers several intertwined, identity-related concepts in regard to her language use. In particular, she relates gender and the idea of home. She offers the example of creativity in the word nosotras, a female form of nosotros, meaning “we.” Although many would condemn this coinage as incorrect, Anzaldúa emphasizes the female solidarity aspect of gender-based inclusion in having a pronoun that creates a female group.

We are robbed of our female being by the masculine plural. Language is a male discourse. . . .

In regard to...

(This entire section contains 804 words.)

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“home,” after listing eight languages (including some she calls “dialects”), Anzaldúa identifies five of them as her “ ‘home’ tongues . . . those I speak with my sister and brothers, with my friends.” In contrast, the Pachuco Spanish, that of the “zoot suiters,” is not part of her normal discourse, as she, like others of her generation, has lost it over the years.

While Anzaldúa mentions Chicano politics in terms of labor activism, especially that of farmworker activism and la Raza Unida party, she stresses throughout that ethnic and language politics pervade every aspect of society. She points to music and food as elements of the “state of soul” that is being Mexican.

This essay, like others in her collection Borderlands / La Frontera, addresses the idea of conceptual and literal borders. Language forms a border that both joins and separates speakers and listeners as much as a physical border, such as the political boundary between countries. Similarly to her attention to the differences between lengua and “language,” throughout the book Anzaldúa discusses different ways that frontera, Spanish for “border,” resembles and differs from the English “frontier.”