Editorial

A National Language

 Home

Every nation is jealous of its national language, and no nation ought to be more so than ours. Most Americans feel that the Constitution, laws and institutions of the United States, in their adaptation to the wants and requirements of her citizens, are superior to those of any other country. Most Americans also feel that a common language should continue to be a  major characteristic of our national heritage.  

By the time you read this Congress may have agreed to make English the official language of the land...or they may have waffled...again. The measure—an amendment to the immigration bill currently under debate, would designate English as the national language of the United States of America. If enacted, it would amend the U.S. Code in the following  principle ways:

·       English would be designated the official language of the U.S. government. In fact, it would designate English as the only language that federal employees and officials, including members of Congress, would be permitted to use for most government business.

·       The English only mandate, if enacted, would extend to federal actions, documents, policies ... publications, income tax forms, informational materials, records, proceedings, letters to citizens—indeed, to any form of written communication on behalf of the U.S. government.

·       Exceptions to the ban on federal use of other languages would be permitted for purposes that include national security, international trade and diplomacy, public health and safety, criminal proceedings, language teaching, certain handicapped programs, and the preservation of Native American languages.

·       Naturalization ceremonies would be specifically restricted to English only.

·       Bilingual provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which guarantee minority-language voting materials in certain jurisdictions, would be repealed.

There is a lot of uncertainty about the practical impact of  English only bills on a spectrum of language services, from bilingual education to Social Security pamphlets to sign-language interpreting. If the current legislation is passed, its interpretation and application would almost certainly be determined by the courts.

There are big differences between the House and the Senate immigration bills, and it is questionable whether they can find a common ground, so perhaps the national language part is moot, at least for now.

But, if an immigration bill is passed, with the English only mandate included, it might give us all a warm fuzzy feeling, but it would accomplish very little. In its current form the measure has many loopholes. And of course...even if the proposed amendment did have some serious bite the ACLU would almost certainly take up the fight on behalf of  some carefully selected illiterate undocumented worker.

 

The truth is, language finds its own level. Some say it cannot be controlled, and that’s probably true...up to a point. Over half of the population of California is now of Hispanic heritage, and since there is a tendency to congregate in Southern California, particularly in Los Angeles and San Diego Counties, the number there is over eighty percent. It is currently estimated that as many as twelve million undocumented persons are now in the United States, and over eighty-five percent of them arrived from Spanish-speaking countries. Most came seeking better economic conditions, and while they can be found in every state, most tend to live in our southern border states.

While all public schools in the U.S. are taught in English, many of the teachers in the schools in our southern border states are of Hispanic ancestry, and speak English with a Spanish accent. Others are foreign-born, and speak Spanish as their primary language. Thus it seems to make sense to break into Spanish to help a foreign-born Hispanic student...or does it? Does it help or does it confuse? Linguistic professionals say that the easiest way to learn a foreign language is by “immersion.” This is the way babies learn to speak, how small children on the playground learn to communicate, and the method used by the U.S. Government to teach foreign language skills to our military at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California, and our State Department personnel at the Foreign Service Institute School for Language Studies in Arlington, Virginia.

The spoken word evolves and spreads pretty much on its own, and in the case of Southern California this spread is rapidly creating a Spanish-speaking enclave, somewhat like French-Quebec in Canada. It is not unusual to hear a person of Mexican descent declare, “We were here before you.” It can be argued that that is a valid statement if the person happens to be a descendent of one of the early Mexican ranch owners, government workers, or soldiers. On the other hand, our national borders have been fairly well established for over one hundred and fifty years, and they are not likely to change. What is possible, however, is that we could end up with a large section of our country speaking a foreign tongue, being educated in a foreign language, with English being used as an “official” language only. If that is allowed to happen with regard to Spanish then it is not too farfetched to image the same situation eventually evolving where other languages are concerned.  

Spain explored, and at one time claimed most of Central and South America, with Brazil being one big exception. They initially robbed, raped and pillaged, and gradually eradicated the major organized civilizations that had existed for centuries. Spain also claimed, at one time or other, all of Mexico, Florida, Texas, the Louisiana Territory, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California, but gradually lost it all to independence movements, and as the result of wars with other European countries and the United States.

By the time Mexico gained its independence, Florida, and the Louisiana Territory had become part of the United States of America, and, in 1846, Texas separated itself, by force, from Mexico. Eventually, Spain lost all of her Caribbean islands, including Cuba, and even the Philippine Islands in the Pacific.

Two major things remained, however, and that was the Catholic Church and the Spanish language. Most Americans

welcome religious diversity and choice, but the encroachment of Spanish on our everyday lives is something else. We enjoy the Mexican atmosphere of an occasional visit to Alvarado Street in the old city area of Los Angeles, but it rankles our sensibilities to hear Spanish language announcements over the public address systems in Walmart and Home Depot. It seems okay to most people to hear a police officer question a person in Spanish, but a reality check is necessary if one happens to be in one of the Southern California police stations—such as Arvin where the Hispanic population is over eighty-five percent—and hear business being conducted almost entirely in Spanish...even radio transmissions. A common joke for Anglos is, “How are your Spanish lessons going?” Perhaps it’s not a joke.

 

The Evolution of English: When Rome started losing control of its eastern provinces, beginning about 400 AD, the Roman Legions, which were stationed in Britain, were gradually recalled to help defend Rome. Britain had been a Roman province for almost four centuries, but by 410 AD the last of the Roman occupiers were gone, and Hadrian’s Wall was unmanned. Terrible times followed. The Picts and Scots, barbarian tribes that lived in the unconquered area in the northern half of the island, as well as Irish raiders from Ulster, began pillaging the Romanized, but now vulnerable, counties south of the Wall.

Then, during the mid-400s, roving bands of Germanic tribes from the northwestern coast of Europe—predominately Angles, Saxons and Jutes—who had previously raided the eastern coast of Britain from the Tyne to the Straits of Dover, began crossing the North Sea in their longboats to settle there permanently. Although the Britons considered the newcomers barbarians as well, and little different from the northern raiders, they nevertheless aligned themselves with them for protection. Their Teutonic allies were able to repel the Picts, the Scots and the Irish, but then, as a group, turned on the native Britons and drove them westward into the mountainous areas of Wales and Cornwall. The former Roman province was then divided up into a number of small  kingdoms, which eventually were merged into one kingdom under one ruler.

Although each of the Teutonic tribes had its own dialect, the settlers—as a whole—were homogenous in culture and their basic speech. And even though the expelled Britons referred to the invaders collectively as Saxons, by around 700 AD the terms Angli and Anglia had predominated. The common language was referred to as Anglisc, and it had completely supplanted the formal Latin of the Romans (except in the Church). Britain was known as Angle-land; which, over time, evolved into England, and the spoken tongue of the masses became English.

 

Contemporary scholars break down the evolution of English into three main periods:

(1)    Old English (450-1150). The somewhat common language of the Teutonic invaders probably resembled modern Dutch more than the English we speak today. It is estimated that Old English had a total vocabulary of only about thirty thousand words, and of that perhaps only about fifteen percent survived to the modern era, yet they make up the basic building blocks of  our language. Some of them are: man, wife, child, house, meat, eat, sleep, drink, live, fight. The Viking raids through the centuries also left their mark on our language, as well as other things, such as twelve inches to a foot, and a jury of “twelve good men tried and true.” Latin was the official written language for several centuries after the Roman legions departed, but  Norman (an early form of French) replaced it with the invasion of William the Conqueror and his Normans in 1066. Although the Norman kings and high nobility spoke a combination of Anglo-Old English and Norman-French for the next three hundred years or so they did not, as had their Viking predecessors, assimilate with the local population. Thus the French language never took hold with the common folk of England, though many French words have, over the centuries, become part of the English language.

(2)    Middle English (1150-1500). The dates, of course, are artificial, but 1150 generally marks the approximate era that our language was noticeably starting  to be somewhat standardized and simplified. Dialects still differed from county to county and region to region, but—for the most part—persons from one area could communicate with people from another. The shift from the use of Norman-French to English in aristocratic circles and at court was gradual, but in 1362 Parliament was convened in English. In the same year Parliament enacted the Statues of Pleading, ruling that all lawsuits would henceforth be conducted in English, and Geoffrey Chaucer, born in 1340, was the first significant writer to use English exclusively. The real turning point, however, was when Henry V (r. 1413-1422), crossed the English Channel during the summer of 1415 to fight the French. After his first successful battle he dictated a letter in English, which mandated that thereafter English would be the official language of the English government. His predecessor, Edward III, who had lost Scotland to Robert Bruce, could only swear in English; now it was the official language of English kings.

(3)    Modern English (1500 on). Although the spoken word in England varied from region to region, the written language had begun to evolve into a uniform means of communication, and was referred to as “the English of London,” since all of the printing trade—at the time—was located in London. It was during the reign of Henry VIII (r.1509-1547) that the criteria for spoken English, as well as written English, took on a standard form. Henry VIII was well educated for his time, and was a poet of considerable talent as well. The English he wrote and spoke was thus literally the “King’s English,” and was imitated by anyone with literary, social or governmental aspirations. But no language remains static, and during the 1500s two new forces had a powerful effect on the growth of the English language. One was the Renaissance, and the other was the growth of national pride as a result of England’s hatred of the French (Sound familiar?). The effect of the sudden surge of interest in the classics was that many Latin and Greek words found niches in the ever  expanding English language.

 

The evolution of the written language was relatively slow during the Middle Ages. That changed, however, when English kings began to eye the entire world as their domain, and after the reign of Henry VIII. As the number of English colonies grew so did the growth of English. From the original 30,000 words or so, the Oxford English Dictionary now lists—as of November 30, 2005—over 616,500 word forms in the English language.  

Next to the United States, the vast subcontinent of India is the oldest outpost of the English language on earth. The paradox is that although English is the language of government, Hindi is the official language of the land. India’s constitution, however, is written in English. Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, as well as many smaller ex-English Colonies, also utilize English as their national language.

Beginning in the sixteenth century, English spread around the world rapidly, and by the second half of the twentieth century it had evolved to the point that it was accepted and used world wide as an international means of communication. Most European countries now mandate the teaching of English as a second language, and even Middle-Eastern and Asian countries recognize that fluency in English is necessary for success in the business world as well. One cannot be a trans-world airline pilot without being relatively fluent in English, and French is out and English is in in diplomatic circles.

 

We are a nation of immigrants. Most of us learned that in third-grade history classes, but recently there has been a lot of hoopla on the subject on TV news broadcasts and in newspapers.

Yes, it is true, we are a nation of immigrants. We came with the English, French, Spanish and Dutch explorers in the 1500s and 1600s; we came as “Scotch-Irish,” German, Swiss, and Scandinavian settlers in the 1700s looking for a new life; we came as indentured servants, as well as English prisoners to serve out sentences, and yes, some of us even arrived in chains as slaves.

A wave of Irish immigrants arrived following the Great Potato Famine. Chinese came in the mid-1800s to work on the trans-continental railroads, and stayed to work in the California gold mines. Filipinos came after the Spanish-American War to work on the pineapple plantations in Hawaii and on truck farms of the San Joaquin Valley of California.

Ellis Island opened in 1890, and was the point of entry for millions of German, Italian, Jewish, Polish and miscellaneous Slavic immigrants. Servicemen returning home after WW2, the Korean “Conflict” and the Viet Nam War and brought many thousands of “war brides” home with them, and after immigration law reform in 1960 we saw a new wave of immigrants from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and especially Mexico.

All of the groups listed above—and sadly even the black slaves who were brought in against their will, as well as English penal system prisoners—came into the United States of America legally. All did not come for the same reason. Some endured bondage for decades; others encountered hardship and desolation on the various frontiers as our nation’s boundaries moved south and west. Oh, there were wars, famines, financial failures, and national disasters, but we persevered.

All who came willingly came to find a better life, and it can be argued that even those who arrived in chains, or at least their descendents, eventually found freedom and a better life here. 

The United States of America is a nation unique in world history. We are a nation of all nationalities, cultures, and religions of the world, including the rich culture of our native peoples, but most of all we are a nation of laws, and we welcome those who arrive legally.

 

Our nation has often been referred to as a “melting pot” of peoples, but there is one thing that binds us all together, and that is our common language. Our American English can be thought of as the result of a melting pot process as well, for it is the combination of many languages.

 Thomas Finkenstaedt and Dieter Wolff, two linguistic researchers, completed a study in 1973 which estimated the origin of English words as follows:

·       French, including Old French (Norman) and Anglo-French—28.3%

·       Latin, including modern scientific and technical Latin—28.24%

·       Other Germanic languages (including Old and Middle English, Scandinavian and Dutch—25%

·       Greek—5.32%

·       Spanish—5.1%Italian and miscellaneous—4.03%

·       Words derived from proper names—3.28%

·       All other languages, including Native American—less than 1%

Thirty-plus years later, the percentages are surely different, but you get the idea. Our society can absorb other cultures—at a reasonable rate—and we can absorb parts of other languages and call them our own.

Many of our early immigrant ancestors arrived from England, Scotland and Ireland, and thus spoke English, or a variation of it (Scotsmen and the Irish are still hard to understand), as their native tongue, but those who arrived from non-English-speaking countries took great pride in learning to communicate in the language of their new country, and second and third generation citizens soon lost their “Old World” accents.  Our predecessors taught their children that it was right to be proud of their national heritage, but that they should prize their new status as Americans. Those who came during the first two-hundred years of our nation’s existence did not consider themselves hyphenated Americans. There was no such thing as a German-American, a Scottish-American, or a Mexican-American...or an African-American for that matter. In their minds if one became an American citizen one immediately became an American, and they were damn proud of it!

Yes… we are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a lawful nation, and we speak English. The current immigration controversy is puzzling. We currently have laws in place that spell out, in detail, the steps necessary to become an American citizen. That said, one must wonder how, and why, our government allowed the current immigration situation to come about. Those who refuse to enforce the law, and those who knowingly break the law, must share the blame.  

We accept more legal immigrants, on a regular basis, than any nation in the world. It is not unlawful to disagree, nor is it against the law to demonstrate (in a peaceful manner), but it is against the law to skip school, and in most cases, disrupt the everyday lives of  one’s fellow citizens. And it is downright stupid to march and demonstrate for rights for illegal immigrants by carrying foreign flags and signs written in a foreign language.

It’s time for our government leaders to stand tall, and take lawful action to again take charge of our national borders. We can, and we should, continue to provide a refuge for the “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,” but it should be on our terms. We must not continue to wilt under the finger-pointing of our southern neighbor, whose immigration policy is very firm, and is strictly enforced...unless of course one can come up with a big enough bribe.

We should all be proud of our national heritage, whether it be European, Middle Eastern, African, Asian or Hispanic. It is good to study the ways and customs of our ancestors, and it is fun to visit ethnic tourist enclaves, sample the food and view demonstrations of national dances, etc. And those of us who are privileged to be able to speak the tongue or dialect of our national origin should be proud of that ability, and yes it is okay to speak that language at home or among family members, but we should all remember that we are Americans, that we pledge allegiance to the American Flag, and that English is the common language of  the United States of America.

Perhaps Theodore Roosevelt said it best in a 1907 speech:

In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person's becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag... We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language... and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.

The bottom line is: the United States and its citizens value freedom and all of the things guaranteed by our Constitution. We welcome legal immigrants, but we say to those who come here without being invited:

·       You do not have the right of free food and housing.

·       You do not have the right of free medical care (have your babies somewhere else).

·       You do not have the right of free education.

·       You don’t have the right to change our county’s heritage.

·       English is our language.

·       If you are not here legally, you are a criminal.

·       If you are uncomfortable with any of the above...Tough!

Top

Home