Adventures In Semantics: English As A National (Not Official) Language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue May 23 12:25:23 UTC 2006

CBS News, May 22, 2006

Adventures In Semantics: English As A National -- Not Official -- Language

(AP)  Parsing the meaning of congressional amendments is often an exercise
best reserved for those with law degrees. So if, like me, you dont have
one, you might have also been somewhat confused about last weeks news that
the Senate had approved a measure that would make English the national
language. As you might have learned by now, that is very different from
making English the official language of the United States, primarily
because calling English the official language would, you know, actually
have an impact on policies. And knowing the difference between measures
that actually yield results, and those that are pretty much extended
exercises in public relations, sometimes hinges on one word.

So, when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told reporters the day after
the amendment passed that "The president has never supported making
English the national language, the White House had to make a statement
later that day to clarify Gonzales words since the president did actually
support English as a national language. Said spokesperson Dana Perino:
"The attorney general got caught in a linguistic snare. He took 'national'
language to mean what we describe as 'official' language. We have no
problem in identifying English, our common linguistic currency as a
national language; we also view it more expansively as the common and
unifying language, Reuters reported.

By Sunday, however, it appeared that Gonzales had been fully briefed on
the difference between English as the official language vs. the national
language. Bob Schieffer asked him about the issue on Face the Nation:
Schieffer: One of the things that the Senate did last week was pass this
bill that makes English the official language of the United States. In the
past, the president has never thought that was a very good idea. It's my
understanding, he wants everybody to speak English, we all understand
that, when they're coming into this country. Do you think it was a good
idea to pass that bill?

Mr. Gonzales: I'm not--I'm not sure that they passed a bill that said it's
the official language. I think it was language that, that English is the
national language, it is the common unifying language, which, of course,
is absolutely true. English is the common unifying language in our
country. I also believe it's very, very important for people to speak
English, it is the path to opportunity. When I travel around the country
and talk to Hispanic groups, I emphasize the fact that English represents
freedom in our country. So it is certainly the fact that English is the
national language, everything confirms that.

What the president has opposed in the past is having English be the
official language or English--or this notion of English-only. The
president does not support that, or at least has not supported that in the
past. My reading of the language that was passed by the--by the Senate is
that these amendments would not have an effect on any existing rights
currently provided under federal--under federal law. And so I think that
these are very--these are symbolic, primarily. Symbols can be important,
and are important, particularly when you're talking about, about America
and America's heritage and history and tradition. But in terms of
ultimately what we will support or not support, it's--we'll have to wait
to see how the list is processed, I'm told. Um, OK. So this would make
English the common unifying language in our country. But it wont have any
effect on any actual laws or anything like that. Right? Sort of. The New
York Times sought to clarify the whole issue a bit more in the Week In
Review section on Sunday: The Senate amendment includes a general call for
the government to preserve and enhance the role of English, and supporters
said it would not lead to the dismantling of regulations concerning
bilingualism. Seems uncontroversial enough.  Apparently not: But opponents
say another clause, which declares that no one has the right to demand
that government services be provided in any language other than English,
could open the door to discrimination.

But as far as the broad impact of English as our national language goes, a
professor who specializes in the sociology of language told The Times,
finally: "A national language is very different from an official language
policy,"  said April Linton, an assistant professor of sociology at the
University of California, San Diego who specializes in the sociology of
language.  Designating a national language, she said, "recognizes it as
part of a national culture and not something enforced in terms of
education or government."

An official language law, on the other hand, "can have real consequences
for policies," Ms. Linton said. So keep your eyes peeled for the official
word on this one.

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