What the heck is an "official" language?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon Jun 25 17:38:09 UTC 2007

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:
> http://webtools.uiuc.edu/blog/view?blogId=25&topicId=589&count=1&ACTION=VIEW_TOPIC_DIALOGS&skinId=286
> Or you can access it from:
> http://webtools.uiuc.edu/blog/view?blogId=25
> All best,
> Rakesh
> ---- 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
> >
> >*     *     *     *     *
> >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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