Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Translingual Inheritance
Language Diversity in Early National Philadelphia
by Elizabeth Kimball
University of Pittsburgh Press, 211 pp., hardcover $50

At the beginning of this book’s first chapter, the author poses the question, “What if we imagined a United States of America not in English?” This may call to mind the murky (and unfounded) legend about German and English supposedly competing with one another for status as the official language of the United States.

Though this book does address “language diversity,” including with reference to German, it does not center on multilingualism, the use of two or more languages, per se. As the first half of the title suggests, the book is about translingualism, a concept that can include multilingualism but deals more generally with how people use different languages and subvarieties of languages and reflects on differences across them.

In her book, Kimball, an assistant professor of English at Drexel University trained in rhetoric and composition, explores aspects of social, political and cultural diversity in early America through the prism of primary archival documents from Philadelphia that address language in some way, either explicitly or implicitly. The book focuses on translingualism in three communities: Germans, Quakers and African Americans. The documentary evidence for the analyses of language in these communities comes from writings by Justus Heinrich Christian Helmuth (1745–1825), a German-born Lutheran theologian and strong advocate for the maintenance of German among his brethren in the U.S.; “Ascham,” an anonymous Quaker intellectual who published five essays in 1830 that laid the intellectual groundwork for the founding of Haverford College; and Richard Allen (1760–1831), a formerly enslaved minister and educator who, among his many other achievements, founded the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.

Of the three early Philadelphia communities, linguistic diversity in the specific sense of multilingualism figures mostly in the chapter dealing with Germans, because Quakers and African Americans were mainly English-speaking. The chapter that examines the Ascham essays touches on the place of classical languages, especially Latin, in Quaker thought. In the chapter on African Americans, the documentary evidence analyzed by the author, namely Allen’s posthumously published autobiography, centers less on questions of language but inspires the author to speculate about linguistic differences between African Americans and whites that would have been reflected in distinct ethnolects of English, including what linguists refer to today as African American Vernacular English.

This book is not a historical sociolinguistic study, but it does shed an interesting light on questions related to language in early America, especially in the educational and religious spheres. Scholars interested in the cultural and intellectual diversity of Philadelphia in the first decades of the 19th century will find much here to reflect on.

Mark Louden
University of Wisconsin–Madison