Language in America - History of English as America's Common Language


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History of English As America's Common Language

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Most scholars believe that English has always been our official language. Prof. J.R. Pole, "Foundations of American Indepedence: 1763-1815," Bobbs-Merrill Co. 1972, 18. Unfortunately, that has been true in fact, but not in law.

The Revolutionary Era:

The Founders of the United States of America were aware of the importance of language on nation-building. A nation’s language was thought to be the essence of national culture. Hobbes wrote in 1651 that language was the major organizing principle of states and without it "there had been amongst men, neither Commonwealth, nor Society, nor Contract, nor Peace". Source: T. Hobbes, Leviathan, 12 (1973 ed.). As Professor Simpson put it: "Language, in other words, is seen from the start as a potential element in constituting a political and cultural unity among the citizens of the new republic; or, if it goes wrong, a means of prescribing or perpetuating disorder." Source: David Simpson, The Politics of American English, 1776-1850, 30 (1986).

Other countries were establishing language academies to use their languages as instruments for division and rule. The American Founders had different ideas, feeling that all persons should have an understanding of the same language. Source: Zall, "The American Language: Follow the Founders?" Freedom Review, Vol. 26, No. 4, July-August 1995, P. 2. In 1780, John Adams wrote to the President of Congress, arguing that Americans should "force their language into general use." Source: John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Vol. 7, p. 249 (Charles Francis Adams ed., 1852). Having just fought a war against the English, however, the Founders were reluctant to declare English their official language.

Congress Rejects Government in Other Languages:

Historically, American government has operated in English. On January 13, 1795, the U.S. House of Representatives defeated a bill to print 3,000 sets of the federal laws in German "for the accommodation of such German citizens of the United States, as do not understand the English language." Source: 4 Annals of the Congress of the United States, 1082. The decisive vote against bilingual publication was cast by the first Speaker of the House, Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg, a German-American from Pennsylvania, then the state with the largest German population. Source: Baron, The English-Only Question, 1990, 88. (This close congressional vote was apparently the source of myths that German almost became the official language of the United States.) Every year from 1843 to 1847 Congress voted against printing copies of the President’s annual message in Low German, German or French. Source: Id.

Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo:

Nevertheless, the American government put no emphasis on language until this century. For example, some believe that the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, signed in 1848 after the Mexican-American war, granted special rights to Spanish-speaking residents of the United States. But the Treaty does not mention language or culture. Source: Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (entered into force, 1848).

Attempts to Regulate Private Language Choice:

At the turn of the century, several states banned the teaching of foreign languages in private schools and homes. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down restrictions on private language education in 1923. Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923).

Federal Government Language Use:

In the 1970’s, the federal government suddenly began requiring languages other than English. For example, in 1974, the Supreme Court declared that federal civil rights laws required schools to provide special educational assistance to students with limited English- language skills. Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974). In 1975, Congress required the use of bilingual voting materials in elections across the country. 28 C.F.R. Part 55.

Also in 1975, the federal Department of Education proposed regulations requiring schools to use multicultural and multilingual instruction, rather than intensive English language training. The regulations, never finalized, were imposed on schools 500 times before the incoming Reagan Administration withdrew them.

In 1981, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission decided that employers could not require workers to speak English on the job; federal courts have held that the EEOC’s rule is illegal. Garcia v. Spun-Steak Co., 998 F.2d 1480 (9th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 114 S.Ct. 2726 (1994).

The Reaction:

In response, grassroots organizations formed to promote English as the official language of the federal and state governments. The late U.S. Senator S.I. Hayakawa is the founder of this "Official English movement." In 1981, Sen. Hayakawa, an immigrant, college president and reknowned semanticist, proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to declare English the official language. Source: Chavez, Out of the Barrio, P. 87-89. Sen. Hayakawa also convinced the U.S. Senate to adopt a resolution declaring that English should be the official language of the United States. Source: Congressional Record (daily ed.) June 20, 1984, H 6166.

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