Our Official Language

Copyright © by Len Holman, 2/8/12


  Conservatives and liberals have certain slogans they love to trot out which they misrepresent as actual thoughts, having real content.  They can do this because few voters or constituents bother to examine these slogans to see if they make any sense at all.  These bumper-sticker thoughts work, so they get used a lot, with a few words changed here and there, depending on the context.  Conservatives, it appears to me, are winning the slogan contest, with that “take back America” howl and “values voters” label.  One of my favorites is the one, variously stated, about making English the “official” language of America. 

  I quickly picked up the newspaper and checked the front page: English. I watched the news: English. In fact, every document the government writes is in English—even though it’s an English that only a bureaucrat on peyote would love and/or understand.  We fight our wars in English and our drones are programmed in English.  When a pilot who speaks Hindi approaches a control tower with French speakers in it, everyone switches to English.  America speaks English, despite what Ben Franklin thought about German.  Just because ballots and DMV manuals, and instructions on how to assemble your baby’s crib or use your DVD recorder have other languages as well as English just shows that some people read Korean or French better than English—but it doesn’t make English an inferior language. English is the second language learned by school kids in China, as well as many other countries. Did anyone ever notice that when an official, a politician, a wheeler-dealer from a foreign country is interviewed, he or she speaks English?  The world’s elite go to our universities and learn English. 

  They do this because English rules, at least so far, all their official and most of their unofficial discourse here and abroad.  So for Newt, for example, to demand that English be our “official” language is like demanding that gravity be declared our planet’s official force. It just is already and no amount of bluster or false posturing will change it.  And demanding that English be declared America’s official language makes one wonder what our unofficial one is, or if we have more than one.  It certainly smacks of whistling in the dark and boasting that you’re not afraid.  To need to state the obvious is the need to appeal to the righteous, the self-righteous, the ignorant, the fearful, and the woefully uninformed.  Not to mention those Super PACs run by these same people, who speak English and money—which, in this country, is getting to be the same thing.  Spanish is spoken in America, and so are Korean, Tagalog, Hmong, Chinese, French, even (gulp!) Persian—and a host of others, but the President doesn’t give his State of the Union speech in Japanese. 

  To pander to a fringe of ignorant and frightened people is beneath contempt, but obviously not beneath our democracy.  What would be the practical result of making English the “official” language of this country?  No other language may be spoken in federal or state buildings?  No other language may be spoken within one thousand feet of a federal or state building?  No ballots for federal or state elections may be printed in any other language (this will require the reversal of at least one Supreme Court decision, but a frightened and ignorant herd may be easily swayed.)  Will Korean-Americans, for example, be forced to lock themselves in their homes and speak to their grandparents in whispers?  And how will this edict be enforced?  Will the Language Police (LP) troll kindergartens, checking for incorrect language usage among 5 year-olds?  Will they invade the kitchen of El Portal and be horrified that a Mexican restaurant has people in it who speak Spanish?  What punishments of violations of the Official Language Statute will follow?  Will the LP become a division of Homeland Security and send Mr. and Mrs. Yakuda to Gitmo for speaking Japanese to their children? 

  All this seems not to be in line with the conservative values of letting the free market do its thing.  To have, and enforce, an official language will require yet another bureaucracy, another layer of government interference—so hated by conservatives and those capitalists with bank accounts in the Caymans.  If Mitt Romney can say—with a straight face (his favorite face) that the auto bailout was wrong because market forces were at work to weed out the weak (GM, are you listening?), and say, in Nevada—home of the foreclosure market—that we should just let the housing problem “bottom out,” how can he, or any other “free market” parrot say that we should enforce a language standard?  Shouldn’t we, according to the principle of letting the market decide which language is official and which is not?  Just let the languages fight it out and let the strongest, most used, tongue win?  Will these language patriots endorse the idea that the various states should do all this instead, avoiding one conservative horror of another government intrusion (that is to say, pass the buck to the states)?  If this is done—uh-oh—isn’t there yet another problem?  Conservatives—especially ones who have trouble following a logical argument—believe in states’ rights.  If a state has neither the resources nor the will to do anything about the “language problem,” what then?  Will California, say, be allowed to continue to let Babel rule?  Will Senators Boxer and Feinstein be thrown out of the Senate and sent to language boot camp?  No, that infringes on state authority and makes, again, the federal government the final arbiter. 

  So the whole “we must make English America’s official language” mantra is a sham, a shameless, slobbering, pandering to people who need education, not stroking.  English in America is as official as a language can get, barring riot police roaming the streets, beating those who aren’t using it.  As far as using good grammar goes—well, that’s for another promise in another election.


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