Les Marcott's linguistic meditations last month, "Manipulating The Language," triggered thoughts I've had over time about the urge, as part of the backlash against immigration in this country, to make English the "official language" of the United States. Here are some thoughts on the matter.
If I had my way I would draft legislation stating that Americans should learn at least, say, three new languages during their lives, especially non-Western languages, such as Chinese and Navaho. I would do this not simply for the cultural diversity it would bring but also because of the very nature of language itself: knowing only a single language restricts us to a very narrow view of the world because, in a real sense, we can only know what that language allows us to know.
A couple of generations ago two linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, theorized that language determined a people's culture, not the other way around. To them, people used language to divvy up the world into what the speakers of the language would then call "reality." Another way of saying this is that we can only know what we have words for, and that what we call "culture" or "reality" is a highly filtered version of the world. It is not the truth, only one possibility among many truths.
Thus English, because of how it's structured, in a sense "allows" only a certain kind of reality. For instance, because we must always have nouns activate verbs, we usually see things in terms of cause-and-effect (which is why science is so popular with Western culture). The Navaho and Hopi languages, however, are much more holistic, seeing the world as one large "verb" which is continually happening (which is why quantum physics would be better expressed in Hopi rather than English).
The upshot of all this is that the more languages we know fluently, the more we have available to us different ways of seeing the world. The more ways we see the world the less prone we might be to wanting to ravage it, or restrict it to certain select groups. Orwell, as usual, had seen this already. The purpose of Newspeak, the language he created for 1984, was "to make all other modes of thought impossible." With "official" English we will only be able to have "official" thoughts - that is not what liberty, and supposedly what the United States, is all about.
But this doesn't answer the political question in play here: Why shouldn't English be the official language? Let's answer that with another question: what does it really mean to make a language "official"? Does anyone really know?
One test of an idea's coherence is to imagine what will happen when people act the idea out. If English were the country's official language, what would be some of the consequences? Perhaps a better way of stating this is, What would be permitted and not permitted? Would there be laws, for instance, banning signs in any language other than English? (Would St. Mary's Bank in Manchester,NH, the country's oldest credit union, have to take down its French nameplate?) Would ethnic organizations be allowed? If they were, could they conduct their business in the language of their choice? How would the teaching of foreign languages in school be affected? Foreign language publications? These questions can be multiplied almost infinitely.
The issue of permission also raises issues about monitoring. France and Spain have academies which aim to keep their language pure. Would we have one, too, the APE (Academy for the Preservation of English), with possibly a "Language Police" having the power to give people "poetic licenses"? What, then, would be the penalties for not using English? In short, in what ways would people's constitutional rights be abridged by making English the official language? (For instance, would it be right to disenfranchise thousands of Hispanic voters who are also American citizens because ballots and voting instructions would not be printed in Spanish?)
But perhaps the question most difficult to answer is, Which English are we talking about? People who propose that English be made official presume that English can also be made standard. But people are not united on what constitutes a "standard" English. An amazing mix of Englishes abound in our country, and what emanates from Washington and New York is only one, and usually the blandest, of many dialects. And language changes constantly; the "standard" English of today won't necessarily be the "standard" English tomorrow. Proponents of an official English have no clear idea of what language they want to enshrine.
The real question here should be what makes for literacy, not what makes for Americanness; action should be for education, not for the nativist conceit of an official language. What we need is more compassionate concern for the quality of life of all people in this country, not more lines which separate and deny; fewer references to bootstraps and more to collective successes.