Official Language Lunacy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Jun 24 15:30:11 UTC 2007

Saturday, June 23, 2007 Official Language
a linguist who has actually worked in the field as a professional linguist
(and anthropologist) I happen to know quite a bit about official language
laws around the world.

Most countries of the world have at least one official language. In Latin
America, it is generally Spanish. In Africa, it is often a colonial language
along with one or more large national languages. India has about 13 official
languages, often one for each state, with English and Hindi given some
prominence. In Israel, believe it or not, Arabic and Hebrew are official

The official languages of the Philippines are Tagalog and English. In
Europe, the official language tends to be the main language of the country -
German in Germany, Portuguese in Portugal, Dutch in Holland, etc. Sometimes,
a smaller regional language is also designated an official language, but
these are mostly just used in a certain area.

The French are pretty terrible about this - as French is the only official
language in France and the French are bigots towards other languages. In
Canada, French is an official language in Quebec, but they have been
speaking French in Quebec before there was a Canada. French is an indigenous
language there. The Turks and some Arab states are bigoted about Turkish and

In general, though, official languages are not much of a source of problem
in most of the world, only where they are used as instruments of the
ultranationalist chauvinism described above. And why should not everyone in
Turkey, France and some Arab states just speak Turkish, French and Arabic

Well, maybe they should, but they also have a right to speak their regional
language, because the Bretons and Basques were speaking Breton and Basque
long before there was a France. The Kurds have been speaking Kurdish in
Turkey for thousands of years before there was a Turkish state. The Kurds
and Assyrians in Iraq and Syria spoke their languages for thousands of years
before there was an Iraq or Syria.

Many countries have quite a few official languages. As noted, India has 13.
South Africa has 11 official languages <>.
Adopting quite a few languages as official has not been much of a problem
for most countries, though Americans probably think it is stupid or crazy.

Which brings us to the United States. Official language policy has sadly
fallen to the same lunatic forces that have taken over our immigration
debate. Do we have an official language in the US? Sure we do! Two of them,
in fact. Hawaiian and Spanish, in Hawaii and New Mexico, to be precise.
English? Are you kidding?

I'll give you a short break to pick yourself off the floor where you are now

Is it rational for Hawaiian to be an official language of Hawaii? Sure, it's
been spoken there for hundreds of years before we stole the place. Spanish
in New Mexico? Sure. When New Mexico was admitted to the Union, a large
percentage of the population were Spanish speakers of Spanish, not Mexican,

There are many Indian languages in the US, but most of them are dying and
many are already dead. They have few speakers and in no case do they make up
a large percentage of a state's speakers.

Nor do we have a situation similar to New Mexico anywhere else in the US.
When California was admitted to the US, there were some Spanish-speaking
Californios, but they were quite outnumbered by then by English-speakers
flooding in with the Gold Rush.

The vast majority of Spanish speakers in California are relatively recent
immigrants from Mexico and Central America, legal and illegal, with some
second language speakers like me. I am not aware of any case anywhere on
Earth where the language of a recent wave of immigrants has been granted
official status. If you know of one, let me know.

The vast majority of the people in the US speak English. According to global
norms, English should be the official language of the United States. In most
of the sane world, that would be a noncontroversial view and speaking as a
linguist, it would be linguistically justified. Yet for some reason, people
who advocate English as the official language of the US are derided as

This is completely bizarre. In the vast majority of the world, making the
language of the vast majority of citizens the, or an, official language is a
boring and mundane decision. Rarely is the specter of racism raised.

If we can make English an official language of the US without appealing to
the language bigots or nativists, let's do it. I don't see why governments
at all levels and any businesses could not continue to provide notices and
services in other languages for recent immigrants if English was an official
language - it's a rational and humanitarian thing to do.

posted by Robert Lindsay at 6/23/2007
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