"Would you repeat that in Yiddish and Vietnamese and French?"

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Today, the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution held a hearing on H.R. 997, the "English Language Unity Act of 2011" sponsored by Rep. Steve King [R-IA]. The House bill and its Senate counterpart (S. 503, sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe [R-OK]) have been introduced in the last several sessions of Congress, and there's no indication that this attempt to "declare English as the official language of the United States" will be any more successful than the previous iterations. But at the very least the hearings provide some moments of politico-linguistic theater. At the hearing today, Rep. John Conyers [D-MI] delivered his opening statement in halting Spanish, after which Rep. Trent Franks [R-AZ] requested, "would you repeat that in Yiddish and Vietnamese and French?" Franks and King both argued that Conyers' use of Spanish was itself a compelling argument in favor of the bill (with King making a Tower of Babel reference). Here's the video, from TPM.

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Previous coverage of the "official English" movement on Language Log:

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25 Comments »

  1. Bob Davis said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

    What is the official language of England?

  2. Eric P Smith said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

    @Bob Davis: The UK has not got a constitutionally defined official language.

    Scotland, one of the constituent nations of the UK, has a devolved parliament which passed an Act in 2005 recognising Scottish Gaelic as an official language in Scotland alongside English. To my mind that is absurd. Gaelic is now spoken by only about 1% of the Scottish population, all of whom are also fluent in English. Last week I attended a photographic exhibition in the Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood. Not only were all signs in English and Gaelic, but all the information about all the photographs was in English and Gaelic as well. There is not a single person in the world who could understand the Gaelic text who could not understand the English text just as well. The Gaelic text, as a means of passing information, is totally redundant. I will be politically very unpopular in saying this – in particular with my niece who has as degree in Scottish Ethnology – but to my mind that is a misuse of language.

    I am not well placed to express an opinion on whether there should be official languages of the US and if so what they should be. But I hope that any decision on the matter is made on the basis that the purpose of language is communication.

  3. bulbul said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

    Eric,
    But I hope that any decision on the matter is made on the basis that the purpose of language is communication.
    Establishing an official language is a purely political act that has nothing to do with communication or anything else. By doing so, people and their elected representatives are essentially making a certain claim about the (real or desired) nature of the country. In Scottland with Galeic, the Scottish politicians are trying hold on to their heritage. In the US with English (and Slovakia with Slovak, Hungary with Hungarian, Lithuania and Lithuanian etc. etc.), the politicians are trying to make a simple statement about who's the boss around here.

  4. Eric P Smith said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

    @bulbul,

    Yes, I know. And I think it’s silly.

  5. Vic said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

    @bulbul,

    I find it interesting that when a country chooses a single official language, it is, as you said, "a simple statement about who's the boss", but when they select more than one language (e.g., Canada, Finland) it has just the opposite effect – one of inclusion rather than exclusion.

  6. Eric P Smith said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

    My last comment may be unclear. What I mean is that giving a language official status is silly if it is done with complete disregard to its de facto status and purely for political posturing.

  7. bulbul said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

    Vic,
    when you think about it, it's like any human relationship – if someone (be it a single person or a group of people) insists they are the only one whose voice matters, they're an asshole. Actually recognizing that other people (groups etc.) matter is a step away from that.

    Eric,
    as with almost everything, it depends on the real-world impact – some political posturing is good, some is bad, some is neutral. The example you give with Scottish Gaelic falls, at worst, into the 'neutral' category. One could argue against that move in monetary terms ("I don't want my tax money to be spent on useless translations into Gaelic!"), but that's a long discussion and besides, you didn't make that point. You argued against the idea of Scottish Gaelic as an official language based on the lack of utility ("The Gaelic text, as a means of passing information, is totally redundant"), an argument I find, to borrow your terminology, silly. As if the only purpose of language were to serve as a medium of communication and, to return to the subject at hand, as if the situation in Scotland were comparable to what the gentleman from Iowa is trying to bring about. It isn't.

  8. Paul said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 6:55 pm

    As a speaker of a little-used language which nevertheless enjoys an official status that is occasionally even honoured in practice, I would argue that official use of language may be for the purpose of communication, but that doesn't mean that communicating its intended message is its sole effect.

    If a given community includes speakers of two languages, but only one (which is known by all adult speakers of the other language, but not vice versa) is ever used by official authorities, that can only tend to reinforce, psychologically and practically, a movement away from use and transmission of the other language.

    It also reinforces the tendency, already existing in many families, for parents to think that passing on the officially-disregarded language will only disadvantage their children.

    In contemporary post-industrial societies, interaction with public authorities is constant and highly significant. I don't see why these authorities should have a presumptive right to choose which of two locally-used languages citizens can use to communicate with them on the basis of their own convenience.

  9. Andy Averill said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

    The US may not have an official language at the moment, but under the terms of the Voting Rights Act, local governments are required to provide ballots and election materials in any language spoken by 5% of the population (provided those people also have limited English proficiency).

    This is most noticeable in California, where in one county or another, election materials are provided in Spanish, Tagalog, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Wintun, Yuman, and "Central or South American Indian".

    I suspect (if I may wax political here for a moment) that this, as much as anything, is what's fueling the official-language movement, particularly among the Tea Part set.

  10. Andy Averill said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

    *Tea Party

  11. alec said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 8:36 pm

    The US may not have an official language at the moment, but under the terms of the Voting Rights Act, local governments are required to provide ballots and election materials in any language spoken by 5% of the population (provided those people also have limited English proficiency).

    This is most noticeable in California, where in one county or another, election materials are provided in Spanish, Tagalog, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Wintun, Yuman, and "Central or South American Indian".

    I suspect (if I may wax political here for a moment) that this, as much as anything, is what's fueling the official-language movement, particularly among the Tea Part set.

    The promulgation of ballots in non-English languages is often posed as nannying pomo salad-bowl paternalism, but reflects one of the single most admirable beliefs in the modern American character – that the ballot box is a holy and private sacrament.

    The idea behind ballot translations is that, if the state doesn't provide them, someone else will; you can't stop someone voting just because they doesn't understand the ballot as it is offered. (Not even with statute – you'd need to overturn the Civil Rights Cases with an amendment.) That makes those people vulnerable to, well, fill in the blank: party machines, private cartels, whatever.

    The discussion even sometimes involves charges that official status for Spanish would permit Democrats / left-wing radicals / whoever to squeeze captive votes out of Spanish-speaking voters, where the reality is that unofficial languages tend to have much more politically narrow gazettes – e.g. the formerly Socialist Forvarts, which responded to the editorial pressures of the existing and established Yiddish publishing community rather than that of the state or city government, yet acted pretty much exclusively as the Yiddish-language paper of record in the US.

    When you dig through it, the idea behind Official English is a confused belief that it somehow prevents foreigners voting – not "foreigners" as in people not allowed to vote, but as in people who shouldn't be allowed to vote. It's nativism top to bottom. It's not a coincidence that the laws now on the books at the state level emerged with just three exceptions in four waves of nativism: the 20s Red Scare, the Bible Belt power shift 1983-8, the Gingrich term 1995-6, and the Republican nativist upwelling 2006-10.

    Which is not to say that salad-bowl paternalism doesn't exist, and in fact there's nothing more awkward than a pol trying to speak Spanish out of the blue for wholly political reasons. But the crusade is and can only be against the language, not the man trying to speak it.

    Back in 1923, California didn't have zany Berkeley longhairs to goad Illinois into declaring that its official language was "American", but declare it did anyway.

  12. Michael Newman said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 3:52 am

    To change threads, my first reading of "The English Language Unity Act" would be that its goal would be to preserve the unity of the English language presumably from the threat of those awful descriptivists who are content to let it go the way of Latin into presumably Texan, Brooklynese, etc. I suggest that a response to this: the Anti English Ambiguity Act.

    (note: All available ironic possibilities are intended)

  13. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 6:06 am

    I suspect that there is an advantage in having 'quaint' other language signs in a country that enjoys revenue from tourists. In support of this hypothesis, I posit that I've seen (and photographed, though I can't get to in at the mo*) signs in the Highlands that communicate, in four or five European languages, that one should drive on the left. So you keep the right-driving tourists safe on the correct side of the road, and entertain them with the fact that Inverness is strangely like Inbhir Nis and maybe teach them lenition by osmosis.

    ____________________________________
    *and anyway how do you post photos here?

  14. Ellen K. said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 9:28 am

    The US may not have an official language at the moment, but under the terms of the Voting Rights Act, local governments are required to provide ballots and election materials in any language spoken by 5% of the population (provided those people also have limited English proficiency).

    Does it really say "spoken"? Shouldn't whether or not they can read the language matter? We are taking written materials after all. And not everyone is literate in their first language. I suppose in most cases the distinction isn't a big deal, but in some cases, that wording could make for a lot of useless extra work, I would think.

  15. Jim said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

    "This is most noticeable in California, where in one county or another, election materials are provided in Spanish, Tagalog, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Wintun, Yuman, and "Central or South American Indian".

    If only! It would be wonderful if 5% of the population spoke any Wintun or Yaman langauge – by the way, which Wintun or Yuman langauge; those aere langauges, they are language families.

    It would be wonderful not only because that would be a good thing in itself, but it would also represent a increase in the probable number of speakers at the time of contact.

  16. JW said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

    @Eric P Smith "There is not a single person in the world who could understand the Gaelic text who could not understand the English text just as well. The Gaelic text, as a means of passing information, is totally redundant."

    In a few decades, you will probably be able to say the same thing about Dutch in the Netherlands and Swedish in Sweden. Should those countries abolish their languages? I understand what you are saying about wasting money, but personally I think this sort of thing should be put to a popular vote.

  17. Marcos said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

    Jim, I believe Native American languages are covered under a different section of the Act, meaning that they don't have to have a certain percentage of the county as speakers, but must meet certain other requirements instead (a certain number of monolinguals, perhaps? I don't know)

    As far as Yuman, they mean the Quechan language, which is also known as Yuma.

    Also, for certain languages written materials aren't available; if you live in counties in Arizona where you can elect to receive a Tohono O'odham ballot, you'll find that you cannot actually do so, but instead they will send an interpreter to your home to assist you in voting.

  18. Marcos said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

    ( I suspect the same is true of Yuma and Wintu)

  19. Eric P Smith said,

    August 4, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

    @JW: No, I am not saying that the Netherlands and Sweden should abolish their language. Nor am I saying that Scotland should abolish Gaelic. I am just saying that it was (in my view) silly of Scotland to make Gaelic an official language when only 1% of the country speak it. If the time were to come when only 1% of the Netherlands population speak Dutch and only 1% of the Swedish population speak Swedish, then I think it would be too late to think of giving these languages official status if they did not have them already.

    I did not say anything about wasting money.

  20. David said,

    August 5, 2012 @ 9:23 am

    As an American living in a country (Switzerland) where we have 3 "official" and fourth "national" language, I find this whole debate comical. Here, declaring a language "official" means that government documents like driver's license applications and such must AT LEAST include all of the official languages. No problem if additional languages are included (like Portugese or Croatian or even English). Ditto for ingredients lists on foodstuffs, etc.

    Of course, we really have dozens of official languages, counting the sometimes mutually incomprehensible dialects of Swiss German.

  21. David said,

    August 5, 2012 @ 9:31 am

    As an American living in a country (Switzerland) where we have 3 "official" and a fourth "national" language, I find this whole debate comical. Here, declaring a language "official" means that government documents like driver's license applications and such must AT LEAST include all of the official languages. No problem if additional languages are included (like Portugese or Croatian or even English). Ditto for ingredients lists on foodstuffs, etc.

    Of course, we really have dozens of official languages, counting the sometimes mutually incomprehensible dialects of Swiss German.

  22. David said,

    August 5, 2012 @ 9:31 am

    As an American living in a country (Switzerland) where we have 3 "official" and a fourth "national" language, I find this whole debate comical. Here, declaring a language "official" means that government documents like driver's license applications and such must AT LEAST include all of the official languages. No problem if additional languages are included (like Portuguese or Croatian or even English). Ditto for ingredients lists on foodstuffs, etc.

    Of course, we really have dozens of official languages, counting the sometimes mutually incomprehensible dialects of Swiss German.

  23. David said,

    August 5, 2012 @ 9:32 am

    Sorry for the browser fart that led to duplicate posts.

  24. Gabriel Curio said,

    August 9, 2012 @ 6:03 am

    When the Labour Party was first elected to the Parliament of the UK, they sent MPs who had a working class background. The upper class MPs began using Latin. Lacking a public-school education, the Labour MPs were unable to effectively do their jobs.

    Congress should require English to be spoken for official business. Imagine important procedural matters being conducted in non-English langauge. Members of Congress would not know when to vote, when committees were meeting, or even if Congress is in session.

    English is the only language which all members of congress understand. That alone is sufficient to make it the working language of Congress.

  25. Gabriel Curio said,

    August 9, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    During the first waves of immigration to the US, voting consisted of publicly putting a colored slip into a box. No language was involved. Only with in introduction of the "Australian" ballot did written language become involved.

    The modern "Australian" system ensures privacy, but also allows discrimination against those who are illiterate or not English speakers. In the 1880s this was seen as a good thing: it kept freedman and Italians from voting, and weakened political machines like Tammany Hall.

    Perhaps we should allow candidates to place their photo or logo next to their name. We could color code candidates too.

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