The true colors of English First

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The linguistic claims on which the arguments of the "English Only" movement are based are generally so ill-founded that one is hard put not to suspect that the underlying agenda is something else. A nice bit of evidence just surfaced.

The union at the Tyson Foods poultry plant in Shelbyville, Tennessee recently signed a contract that provides eight paid holidays: New Year's Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, the employee's birthday, and Eid-al-Fitr, the last day of Ramadan. In the previous contract, the eighth holiday was Labor Day rather than Eid-al-Fitr. The change was requested by the union for the benefit of the 250 of its 1,200 members who are Muslims. 80% of the union members voted to approve the contract, which means that at least 710 non-Muslims voted in favor. (Fox News report)

You might think that this is the kind of thing that labor unions are supposed to do: negotiate holidays that are convenient for their members, but English First has a different take on it. According to this Earth Times report, Jim Boulet, Jr., Executive Director of English First, condemned the contract as "multiculturalism run amok", complaining that "Now, an American holiday has been replaced by a Muslim religious festival."

This isn't a matter of imposing Islam or Islamic law on non-Muslims. It just exchanges a minor holiday for a holiday more important to the union membership. Non-Muslim employees can do whatever they like on Eid-al-Fitr, including such non-Islamic activities as eating barbecued pork and washing it down with beer if they are so inclined.

What examples such as this reveal is that the true agenda of organizations like English First is not linguistic: it is bigotry. I suspect that the Somali Muslims in Shelbyville who used their labor union to negotiate a more convenient holiday schedule have a better understanding of what America is about than Mr. Boulet.


  1. Jangari said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 7:28 pm

    I don't know much about American holidays, but as for the at least 710 non-Muslim Union members who voted in favour of Eid-al-Fitr over Labor Day, they probably did so because the timeline fits neater for them. Moreover, they'd probably be a little chuffed to have a day off that most (nearly all) other workers would not have.

    I for one, would trade in some redundant holiday like Good Friday for something like the southern Hibernal Solstice, because the middle of the Australian work year is almost entirely bereft of holidays, wheres the first half of the year is well served.

  2. Karim Amir said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 7:29 pm

    "What examples such as this reveal is that the true agenda of organizations like English First is not linguistic: it is bigotry."

    Well said.

  3. Craig Ewert said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

    A true English Only movement would have demanded that the new holiday be called "Last Day of Ramadan".

  4. Bill Poser said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 7:54 pm

    Like Ramadan, Eid-al-Fitr occurs on different dates in different years. This is due to the fact that the Muslim calendar is a lunar calendar, only 354 solar days long, so a given date in the Muslim calendar rotates backwards around the solar calendar. This year Eid-al-Fitr is October 1st. In 2009 it is September 20th, in 2010 September 10th, and in 2011 August 30th. See for details.

  5. Jonathon said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 7:58 pm

    Interesting that they call Labor Day a holiday while Eid-al-Fitr is a festival, as if it's little more than a big party and not a proper holiday. I suspect that English First would object to the characterization of Easter and Christmas as religious festivals.

  6. SK said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

    Am I right in thinking that the first sentence of this article is overnegated? Like Bill Poser, I suspect that the underlying agenda *is* something else; I am hard put not to suspect that.

  7. GAC said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 9:19 pm

    I agree that it does look like there's another agenda. Of course, that's something plenty of people knew to begin with.

  8. cb said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 9:23 pm

    Bigotry? I think you're over reaching. It's simply strange to have such a thing in a calendar, considering its lack of connection to the centuries-old common culture (not to mention vernacular!) of these United States. If I saw it, I'd have to look it up. That's strange for such a small set of holidays.

    Also: how many of the people, culturally Western or not, were informed of this decision when voting. That is, what it a small part of a large set of things to vote on at once?

  9. Bobbie said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 9:28 pm

    The date of Good Friday also varies, depending on the date of Easter for the year. And Easter is also calculated by the lunar calendar. It occurs on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. One of those wonderful trivial items that I learned long ago….

  10. Ryan Rosso said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 9:55 pm

    cb: This issue has nothing to do with putting anything in a calendar. It is simply that the union acted on behalf of its members (only a small percentage mind you, but a large majority supported the action) and the director of English First made this into a cultural issue. Isn't it odd that a strictly linguistically oriented organization started in with cultural issues?

  11. MSchmahl said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 10:02 pm

    @SK: I think you are right. If we replace "hard put not to" with "must", we get: "…[O]ne must suspect that the underlying agenda is not something else."

  12. Xtopher said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 10:13 pm

    It's Shelbyville, not Shelby. (pronounced shelbuhvul)

  13. cb said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 10:20 pm

    Ryan: "This issue has nothing to do with putting anything in a calendar."

    From the article: "Eid al-Fitr is one of eight paid holidays for all team members covered by the contract, while Labor Day is not a paid holiday".

    So, it does have something to do with modifying the plant's official employee working-days calendar. I don't know what you thought I meant, but the calendar for one's job is always one of the first issues (after what time to be there, and do I have to get steel-toed shoes), and it always varies.

    The "English First" part I did not address: I was trying to resolve some cultural questions of my own before I could understand their assertions. I don't care that "a large majority" of the union members at the particular plant supposedly voted on the holiday addition and prayer room, I care how they did it.

    Furthermore, this is a cultural issue. What do you call pegging paid vacations to cultural holidays? (There are, quite obviously, ways to provide employees vacations without any reference or even any care to attach them to secular and religious holidays; but most employees would no doubt not care for that.)

  14. John Laviolette said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 10:30 pm

    Yes, but:
    (1) this is Language Log, which deals with language; and,
    (2) this is a blog post about English First, an organization ostensibly about supporting English for purely language-related issues and not cultural issues.

    Whether or not Muslims at a factory get a paid holiday on the last day of Ramadan has nothing to do with English as the only official language of the United States. And yet, English First chose to focus on that.

  15. Dan Milton said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 10:46 pm

    Thanks for introducing me to the English First website. They are working for the repeal of Executive Order 13166, which I learn from their page on Sen. Obama's voting record "requires all recipients of federal funds to function in any langauge any speaks at any time".
    Aren't you glad they're defending our language?

  16. cb said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 10:49 pm

    Excuse me. I thought we were discussing the language and culture of the holidays, not the politics of the antagonists.

  17. WannabeLinguist said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 12:50 am

    Unless Bill has since edited the sentence, I don't think it's overnegated.

    The sentence formatting SK mentioned is identical to the formatting in Bill's original article. I usually use the term hard-pressed – I would be hard-pressed not to suspect an ulterior motive.

    Generally, this story makes me incredibly sad. I thought that society had moved ahead more than that. And when I look at the English First website I notice that they are also looking to stop such things as bilingual education (the reason I speak fluent French – yep, I'm a Canuck) and that just makes my stomach turn.

    I will be speaking out against this org, myself. The undercurrent of hate and racism is not lost on me.

  18. WannabeLinguist said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 12:52 am

    I also find it ironic that the grammatical structure of their "vision statement" at the top of their webpage is absolutely terrible.

    You become a full member of American society, not of Americans society. Nice move, geniuses.

  19. Joe said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 3:48 am

    God help them when they learn that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France.

  20. Stewart Haddock said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 11:06 am

    I am surprised they took away Labor Day, "a day off for the working man". It just seems that the union would want to hold on to this one.

  21. Alex said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 8:35 pm

    "Non-Muslim employees can do whatever they like on Eid-al-Fitr, including such non-Islamic activities as eating barbecued pork and washing it down with beer if they are so inclined."

    It sounds like you are saying that non-Muslims get just as good a holiday, but that is for them to determine. If it's not Labor Day, then their friends might be working, etc. They are not the same.

    "What examples such as this reveal is that the true agenda of organizations like English First is not linguistic: it is bigotry."

    For me linguistics is a certain area of science and knowledge (at least when I'm reading language log). So no, this does not deal with discovering any truths or patterns about language. It does deal with language, which has an enormous cultural component to many people.

  22. cgw said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 11:45 am

    As a union negotiator, I find it very ironic that this union voted Labor Day off the island. But of course I'd expect any union to vote in the way that best represents the interests of the bargaining unit.

    @cb It's true that companies need not peg paid holidays to cultural holidays, but doing so benefits management as well as labor. If most laborers will take the day off, it becomes costly to keep the place running at all. And if management tries to contain costs by forcing most people to work no matter what the day, then mgmt must also decide which few lucky laborers get to observe their treasured cultural holiday–something costly to everyone's morale.

    re: English First . . . at least they are lousy at covering up their bigotry.

  23. Jim Boulet, Jr. said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 4:13 pm


    Mandatory multiculturalism and mandatory multilingualism are two sides of the same “America is always wrong” coin. Accordingly, multiculturalism has been an inherent part of the bilingual education agenda since its inception.

    The anti-English lobby firmly believes it is the duty of all Americans to learn the language(s) spoken by immigrants, while arguing that it is somehow unfair to ask immigrants to learn America’s language, English. Mandatory multiculturalists see nothing but flaws in American culture, while seeing nothing but virtues in the culture of every other nation..

    Keep in mind that Muslim workers at the Tyson Tennessee poultry plant had the right to take their individual birthdays as paid holidays, which meant a devout Muslim could exchange his birthday holiday for his religious holiday.

    Instead, all employees, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, lost an American national holiday, Labor Day, in return for a Moslem religious holiday . Had the Tyson workers in question voted to replace Labor Day with, say, the 40th day after Easter, when Christians believe their resurrected Messiah, Jesus Christ, ascended to Heaven, would you still say that the workers “who used their labor union to negotiate a more convenient holiday schedule have a better understanding of what America is about than” I?

    Wait until Tyson managers learn that the Muslim holiday in question, Eid, is to be observed on a moment’s notice. Notes the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR): “Because the occurrence of Eid depends upon the sighting of the new moon, the exact date can only be determined with certainty the night before” [CAIR, “An Educator’s Guide to Islamic Religious Practices” (1997, 2005)].

    Jim Boulet Jr.
    Executive Director
    English First

  24. cgw said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

    Jim Boulet Jr. asks, "Had the Tyson workers in question ***voted*** to replace Labor Day with, say, the 40th day after Easter . . . would you still say that the workers ". . .have a better understanding of what America is about than" I?"


  25. Phil Jensen said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 1:19 am

    Since "Labor Day" was invented to distract American workers from the dangerous notion of solidarity with workers of the world, for whom May 1 is Labor Day, maybe it's not so ironic that they voted to drop it.

  26. DT said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

    Jim – was your post meant as a joke? I thought so, but maybe not. I'm not sure why CAIR says otherwise, but every Muslim I know has the date of Eid in advance. It's just like the Jewish calendar; it used to require direct observation, but now we know the dates well in advance. It technically still requires observations, but all those do is confirm basic physics.

    Did you really not know that? Or are you trying to spread misinformation? Also, are you going to edit the bizarre vision statement at the top of your website? It's certainly not standard American English!

  27. Mark S. said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 10:35 pm

    The Republicans have now officially embraced English First. The recently approved party platform contains the following: "To ensure that all students will have access to the mainstream of American life, we support the English First approach and oppose divisive programs that limit students' future potential. All students must be literate in English, our common language, to participate in the promise of America" (p. 44, "Principles for Elementary and Secondary Education").

    This was not part of the 2004 platform.

    Also, compare the following.
    "With English as our nation’s common language, people from every corner of the world have come together to build this great nation. English empowers. For newcomers, it is the fastest route to mainstream American life, better paying jobs, and owning a piece of the American Dream. Furthermore, fluency in English should be the goal of bilingual education. At the same time, mastery of other languages is important for America’s competitiveness in the world market. We advocate foreign language training in our schools and fostering respect for other languages and cultures throughout society." (2004)

    "One sign of our unity is our English language. For newcomers, it has always been the fastest route to prosperity in America. English empowers. We support English as the official language in our nation, while welcoming the ethnic diversity in the United States and the territories, including language. Immigrants should be encouraged to learn English. English is the accepted language of business, commerce, and legal proceedings, and it is essential as a unifying cultural force. It is also important, as part of cultural integration, that our schools provide better education in U.S. history and civics for all children, thereby fostering a commitment to our national motto, E Pluribus Unum." (2008, emphasis added)

  28. Kenneth T. Tellis said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 9:57 am

    Hi Jim!

    I am still around and fighting. Surely you will remember me and all that I sent you to fight off the Franco-Canado attempt to make New Hampshire BILINGUAL. Well, I am still around and fighting this French surge in Canada.

    If you have the time please contact me.


    Kenneth T . Tellis

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