english, the official national language

Dennis Baron debaron at UIUC.EDU
Tue May 23 16:40:56 UTC 2006

A commentary on the current official/national debate that you may  
find useful.



English, the official national language

by Dennis Baron

Last week the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to the Immigration Law  
that would make English the official language of the United States.  
Later the same day it passed another amendment making English our  
national language. Since then, political analysts and lexicographers  
have been trying to figure out the difference between official and  
national, not to mention what exactly the Senate had in mind passing  
two different laws on the same subject.

Three weeks earlier, responding to the release of a CD featuring the  
national anthem in Spanish, George Bush told reporters in the Rose  
Garden that everybody in this country should speak English,  
especially when singing the Star-Spangled Banner. But then it came  
out that the president himself had sung the national anthem in  
Spanish when he was on the campaign trail. By way of explanation, a  
White House aide said that the president preferred singing to  
reading. And after the Senate made English either national or  
possibly official, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told reporters  
that it wouldn’t be a problem, because Pres. Bush didn’t support a  
national language at all.

Mr. Gonzales is something of an expert on semantics. In a famous memo  
to the president he once defined torture as nothing less than "organ  
failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,” or mental  
suffering “lasting for months or even years.” That definition was  
quickly entered into the White House Dictionary. But the AG’s  
statement about the national language was immediately contradicted by  
a White House spokesperson who said that Mr. Gonzales had been caught  
in “linguistic snare.” Reporters wanted to know what a linguistic  
snare might be, but the spokesperson reassured them that it did not  
constitute torture, adding that the president certainly supported a  
national language, just not an official one.

If all this isn’t confusing enough, the House of Representatives,  
without checking either with the Senate or with Karl Rove, is  
considering its own Republican-sponsored English Language Unity Act  
that declares English the official language of the United States. The  
proposal also orders the federal government to preserve and enhance  
the role of English. And it encourages any person injured by a  
violation of the official language law to file a civil action in  
order to obtain appropriate relief.

The attorney general has yet to comment on the likelihood that the  
House bill will create a flurry of nuisance suits, filed by persons  
seeking relief because the president sang the national anthem in  
Spanish at an election rally which they were forced to attend by the  
Republican National Committee, although Mr. Gonzales is likely to  
rule that such an extraordinary rendition of the national anthem  
would only constitute torture if the president sang for months, if  
not years, or if they were subsequently forced to go duck hunting  
with the vice president.

With luck, Congress will acknowledge what language teachers and  
minority-language speakers in the U.S. have learned the hard way,  
that America is a graveyard for foreign languages. We don’t need an  
official national language, nor do we need to preserve and enhance  
the role of English, because – as the 2000 Census tells us – just  
about everybody in the United States either speaks English already,  
is learning English, or will start learning English by the time the  
National Guard sets up its southern perimeter in Arizona, where it is  
supposed to give newcomers English lessons and train them to serve in  
the local police. And if the government doesn’t give immigrants the  
English classes they demand, they will sue. In the meantime, someone  
had better let Alberto Gonzales out of his linguistic snare before he  
starts writing another definition.
The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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