TO PART I
Historical Roots of
U.S. Language Policy
By James Crawford
Why has the United States never designated an official language?
A common assumption is that we have been an essentially monolingual nation.
Because the vast majority of citizens spoke English as their native language,
or learned to speak English soon after immigrating here, there was no serious
competition from other tongues. Ethnic languages survived in private schools,
homes, churches, and clubs, but before the 1960s no one expected the taxpayers
to subsidize their maintenance. Without demands for bilingual services,
the language of government was not at issue. Therefore, there was no need
to consider language legislation.
Neat as this explanation appears, it is merely a projection
of today's concerns onto an unexamined past. Such fallacies are widely
accepted because the linguistic dimension of American history remains relatively
unexplored. There is little awareness of the bilingualism – or more accurately,
the multilingualism – that prevailed from earliest times. Diego
Castellanos describes this remarkable diversity: the numerous Indian and
European languages spoken in the original thirteen states even before territorial
expansion and immigration swelled the number of non-English- speaking Americans.
Sometimes there was a backlash against minority language
groups. In the 1750s Benjamin Franklin expressed alarm over the Pennsylvania
Germans' alleged refusal to speak English. His complaints about bilingual
street signs anticipated a contemporary target of English Only wrath. Similarly,
his exasperation with the Germans, whom he once described as "Palatine
Boors," revealed more than a little ethnic resentment. Perhaps this
had something to do with Franklin's own failed attempt to publish a German-language
newspaper. It was certainly related to his political feuds with the Germans,
for example, over their pacifist disinclination to fight the Indians.
A more common response was that of Benjamin Rush, who
also encouraged the Germans to assimilate, but through the voluntary means
of a bilingual college. As Shirley Brice Heath explains, the Continental
Congress saw a need to broaden the appeal of the Revolutionary cause by
translating key documents into German and French. The ideas of political
liberty were universal, after all, and there was no reason to restrict
their expression to English. In that era the major language question was
whether to set official standards for American English, as proposed by
John Adams in his call for a language academy.
A majority of early leaders rejected this idea, believing that government
had no business mandating the people's language choices. Their reliance
on private efforts like Noah Webster's speller and dictionary amounted
to a deliberate "policy not to have a policy," Heath argues.
In the main, English was regarded as a practical instrument rather than
a symbolic unifier.
To the extent that language played a nationalistic role
in our history, it has usually involved the competition between British
and American English. The young Webster hoped to foster differences between
the two, believing that "as an independent nation, our honor requires
us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government."
Dennis Baron reports that after the Revolution there was even some idle
talk about getting rid of English in favor of German, French, Greek, or
Hebrew as the national tongue. The legend, however, that German failed
by one vote to become our official language is just that – a tall tale
popularized by aficionados of German culture. In 1923 Washington J. McCormick,
a Montana Congressman, introduced the first official language proposal
ever considered at the federal level: a bill to enshrine "American"
in the place of English. As is generally the case, this language dispute
was a symptom of underlying political tensions – Westerners versus New
Englanders, and in some areas, Irish Americans versus the British empire.
Similar forces governed policies toward minority languages,
which varied considerably. Bilingual education is not a recent invention,
but originated in the colonial era. During the 19th century, German-English
schooling was authorized by law in several states and flourished unofficially
elsewhere. Other European tongues were also taught (sometimes sometimes
as the language of instruction and sometimes as a subject) in response
to pressure from immigrant communities.<1>
But libertarian attitudes did not extend to indigenous languages, as Jon
Reyhner demonstrates. Anglicizing the Indian was regarded as a "civilizing"
device, an alternative to military measures in pacifying warlike tribes.
Children were removed from their reservations, often forcibly, and shipped
to faraway boarding schools, where they were punished if caught speaking
their native tongues. J. D. C. Atkins, federal
Indian Commissioner in the 1880s, describes the policy of eradicating students'
"barbarous dialects," along with every other remnant of Indian-ness.
Intolerance also characterized policies toward conquered
peoples, notably Spanish speakers in the Southwest and Puerto Rico. The
1848 Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican- American War,
made various guarantees to the inhabitants of the annexed territory. While
there was no explicit mention of language and cultural rights, many believed
that these were implicit in the treaty – as illustrated by the debate over
California's 1879 Constitution. In practice,
Spanish language rights were seldom observed except in New Mexico, where
English speakers were greatly outnumbered before the twentieth century.
As detailed by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, New Mexico waged a
long struggle for statehood against a Congress reluctant to grant self-rule
to a non-English-speaking majority. When finally admitted in 1912, the
state adopted a constitution with protections for Spanish speakers, for
example, the bilingual publication of official documents.
On the other hand, "bilingualism" as promoted
by the United States in Puerto Rico had nothing to do with upholding language
rights. It was an attempt to impose English on an island that was almost
totally Spanish-speaking when it became a U.S. colony in 1898. As recounted
by the Language Policy Task Force, Puerto Rican schools became a battleground
over Americanization, a policy that for half a century insisted on English
as the language of instruction.
Meanwhile, measures to assimilate immigrants became increasingly
coercive after the turn of the twentieth century. An Americanization campaign
arose in response to fears that the "new immigrants" from eastern
and southern Europe were resisting English (among other unsavory practices),
as compared with the Germans and Scandinavians who had preceded them. For
the first time a popular link was made between Anglo-conformity and political
loyalty to the United States. John Higham describes the evolution of Americanization
from social work in urban slums, to an effort to combat labor organizing,
to wartime hysteria against Germans (and foreign language speakers generally),
to an instrument of the Big Red Scare. Theodore Roosevelt's concerns in
1917 have a familiar ring today: language as a basis for divided loyalties
versus English as a patriotic symbol. Enthusiasm for forced assimilation
waned quickly, however, as Congress addressed cultural and linguistic diversity
in another way. In 1924 it enacted the strictest immigration quotas in
U.S. history, which remained intact until 1965.
1. For a detailed account, see Heinz Kloss, The
American Bilingual Tradition (Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House Publishers,
COPYRIGHT NOTICE: From LANGUAGE LOYALTIES:
A SOURCE BOOK ON THE OFFICIAL ENGLISH CONTROVERSY, by James Crawford, published
by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 1992 by the University
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