Language Loyalties


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, 1977).

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 of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of both the author and the University of Chicago Press.