Language Loyalties


The Debate over
Official English

By James Crawford

What is at issue in the Official English debate? A consensus has been elusive, because to define the terms of the argument is to gain a decisive advantage. While supporters and opponents frame the controversy in various ways, they tend toward two distinct outlooks.

Viewed in one way, this is a discussion about national identity: what it means to be an American in the late twentieth century and what will hold Americans together during a time of bewildering change. It is about how much diversity a nation can tolerate, even a nation of immigrants. Should cultural pluralism extend to language if that means Americans will be less able to communicate with each other? Are we ready to discard the ideal of a common language, which has kept the melting pot simmering for so long? Can't we respect ethnic traditions without accepting a "salad bowl" mentality that emphasizes what divides rather than what unites us as a people? If government allows immigrants to cast ballots and go to school in their native tongues, won't this reduce their incentives to learn English? By legitimizing bilingualism, are we not we asking for a future of linguistic strife and perhaps separatism à la Québec?

Viewed from another perspective, this is a conflict over rights: equal access to education and government for immigrants and other Americans who face language barriers and freedom of speech in the language of one's choice. It is also a clash of attitudes: nativist bias versus tolerance toward newcomers, Anglo-conformity versus an appreciation of diversity. Should we bow to ethnic fears and resentments, imposing a cultural tyranny of the majority? Can we allow language to be used as a weapon of race prejudice, an instrument to discriminate against unpopular minorities? Shall we deny citizens the right to vote or children the opportunity to learn, canceling bilingual programs because some zealots perceive a symbolic threat to English? Can we live with an English Only amendment that usurps local discretion to offer needed services in other tongues? Are Americans willing to submit to government language restrictions, perhaps enforced by language police à la Québec?

Both positions are plausible and internally consistent. The question is, what relation do they bear to the material world? A number of claims cry out for factual documentation, for example:

  • the "erosion of English" in the United States;
  • draconian effects of the English Language Amendment;
  • linguistic uniformity or democratic principles as the key unifier of Americans;
  • separatist inclinations among language minorities;
  • immigrant resistance to learning English;
  • the anti-immigrant agenda of English Only proponents;
  • analogies to language conflicts elsewhere.

The commentaries that follow include speeches by Congressional sponsors and opponents of Official English, newspaper columns and editorials, miscellaneous articles, and organizational statements, pro and con. In addition, there are documents relevant in assessing these opinions: versions of the English Language Amendment, state Official English laws, and legislative alternatives, including resolutions endorsing "English Plus" and Native American language rights. To put these writings in perspective, this section begins with a chronology detailing the progress of the English Only movement and related skirmishes over language issues.

A further complication in the debate over Official English is the fact that many Americans have trouble taking it seriously. It has inspired not only rancor, but a good deal of frivolity perhaps for similar reasons. Language is inescapable, bound up not only with our politics, but with our most personal experience. It conveys status, intellect, group loyalties, and a myriad of impressions about our fellow humans, justified and otherwise. Though it is a social institution, language defies social control, capriciously changing at the whim of individuals. It evokes anger, pride, humor, and ridicule, in varying proportions. Some Americans become incensed over the latest neologism, while others are fascinated with dialect differences or amused by language snobbery.

Often, when introduced in state legislatures, Official English has meant a break from the dreary routine of public business not an insignificant factor in its success. Mississippi declared English official following "debate" over various tongue-in-cheek amendments. One would have required legislators to pass a remedial English course before the law could take effect. Another declared: "The following words and terms will no longer be recognized in this state, since said terms are either incomprehensible or are not of pure English extraction: Y'all; hominy; canoe; up-air; down-nair; and yonder." On encountering an amendment to recognize "Southern English," the sponsor of Tennessee's Official English legislation cut short the clowning, explaining that bilingualism was "no laughing matter." Whereupon his chastened colleagues passed the bill with a single dissenting vote.

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.