What the heck is an "official" language?

Edmund A. Aunger edmund.aunger at ualberta.ca
Mon Aug 20 22:09:34 UTC 2007

I sympathize with those list members who, during the past summer, have lamented that the concept "official language" is poorly defined and little understood.  To my mind, the "blame" lies particularly with political scientists who, for unknown reasons, have largely avoided the fields of language policy and political linguistics.  Nevertheless:


In 1971, the jurist Claude-Armand Sheppard provided what remains, in my opinion, the classic definition:

"The term 'official language' has been used frequently in this report and is current in legal and political discussions of the language question in Canada.  To our knowledge, it has never been properly defined.  We ourselves have used the following working definition: an official language is a language in which all or some of the public affairs of a particular jurisdiction are, or can be, conducted, either by law or custom.  We take public affairs to comprise the parliamentary and legislative process, administrative regulations, the rendering of justice, all quasi-judicial activities, and the overall day-to-day administration..  In brief, we consider an official language to be the language in which laws are passed, cases can be pleaded and argued, and the government and the citizenry deal with one another.  In Canada such description, depending, of course, on the jurisdiction, can fit only French and English."

- Claude-Armand Sheppard, The Law of Languages in Canada, Ottawa: Information Canada, 1971, p. 291.


In 1993, I applied a very similar definition:

"An official language is a language that is used, or may be used, for government and public affairs.  Most, but not all, states choose to formally recognize the official status of a language in their statutes and, in many cases, in their constitution.  In principal, an official language may be used in all public domains (executive, legislative, administrative, and judicial) and by all levels of government (national, regional, and local).  In practice, however, the use of some official languages is very restrained: they are used in few domains, with little frequency, and for limited functions.  In Belgium, only two official languages - French and Dutch - are used for the full range of public affairs.  A third official language, German, is used for a limited number of functions."

- Edmund A. Aunger, "Regional, national, and official languages in Belgium", International Journal of the Sociology of Language 104, 1993, p. 40.


I have just finished writing an essay entitled "Official Languages" that will appear in the International Encyclopedia of Political Science, to be published in 2008.  My sincere hope is that this will clarify a very important, but much abused, term.

Edmund A. Aunger
Professeur de sciences politiques
Campus Saint-Jean, University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta  T6C 4G9
téléphone: 780-465-8759
télécopieur: 780-465-8760
edmund.aunger at ualberta.ca

web: www.ualberta.ca/~eaunger/

  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Harold Schiffman 
  To: lgpolicy-list at ccat.sas.upenn.edu 
  Sent: Monday, June 25, 2007 11:38 AM
  Subject: Re: RE : What the heck is an "official" language?

  One of the reasons I sent out the original message about "official" English is that there is no clear definition anywhere that defines what "official" language means, or implies. Some countries have "national" languages that are perhaps more symbolic, but my whole approach to language policy is that officialization often doesn't matter, i.e. language policy usually consists of "official/written/overt
  /de jure/top-down/explicit" policy as well as "unofficial/unwritten/
  covert/de facto/grass-roots/implicit" aspects.  As Dennis Baron notes, we seem to have achieved dominance in English without ever officializing it.  

  I used to try to make an example of how implicit expectations about the use of English in the U.S., especially in education, were almost never spelled out, by walking into a classroom and holding forth in French for a while, until someone objected.  Then I'd ask what the official language of the university was, to which they had no answer, except that the expectation was that lectures would be in English.

  So I'm really not afraid about officialization of English, because if I know our American legislators, they'll pass legislation that has absolutely no provisions for implementation, funding, enforcement, evaluation, or any other necessary factors to make it actually work. Officializaton of English in the US would be largely symbolic; in fact, interest in officialization is found mostly in small rural towns where everybody already speaks English.  Calls for officialization are symbolic ways to express ones patriotism, ones value system, and perhaps also subtly express racism, i;e. it's a proxy for xenophobia.  And it's cheap, too--doesn't cost much for a small town to officialization English, and it may get somebody some votes in the next election.

  Hal Schiffman

  On 6/25/07, rbhatt at uiuc.edu <rbhatt at uiuc.edu> wrote: 
    There is a nice piece on this matter, on Official English for the US, written by my colleague, Dennis Baron, that should be of interest to this list.  The URL is: 


    Or you can access it from:


    All best,

    ---- Original message ----
    >Date: Mon, 25 Jun 2007 06:49:56 +0100 
    >From: "Anthea Fraser Gupta" <A.F.Gupta at leeds.ac.uk>
    >Subject: RE : What the heck is an "official" language?
    >To: < lgpolicy-list at ccat.sas.upenn.edu>, <lgpolicy-list at ccat.sas.upenn.edu>
    >Absolutely. We had  some discussion about this a couple of months ago. In actuality, the US, like the UK already has an official language. But even if English were to be made de jure the official language, I fail to understand why this designation would entail the proscription of other languages or a ban on any funding of other languages. 
    >*     *     *     *     *
    >Anthea Fraser Gupta (Dr)
    >School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT <www.leeds.ac.uk/english/staff/afg >
    >NB: Reply to a.f.gupta at leeds.ac.uk
    >*     *     *     *     *
    Associate Professor, Linguistics and SLATE
    Department of Linguistics
    University of Illinois
    4088 FLB, 707 S. Mathews
    Urbana, IL 61801

    Email: rbhatt at uiuc.edu
    Ph: 217-265-6308 
       217-333-3563 (leave message)
    Fax: 217-244-8430


  Harold F. Schiffman

  Professor Emeritus of 
  Dravidian Linguistics and Culture 
  Dept. of South Asia Studies                     
  University of Pennsylvania
  Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

  Phone:  (215) 898-7475
  Fax:  (215) 573-2138                                      

  Email:   haroldfs at gmail.com

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