By Dennis Baron
Tea Partiers seem intent on throwing more and more of the American government overboard. Yet there’s one area where both these wing nuts and many ordinary conservatives support more big government, not less: they want the government to make everyone in America speak English.
Christine O’Donnell, an upstart Tea Party candidate who beat a more traditional Republican congressman in Delaware’s senate primary, says that she “will fight to make English America’s official language for all governmental purposes,” adding, “We cannot be one people without speaking ONE language in common.” In 2007 O’Donnell told FoxNews that American scientists deep in their underground laboratories had created mice with “fully functioning human brains”—experiments which she opposes, unless of course the researchers can guarantee that the mice will speak English.
Tea Partiers support official English because they believe that not speaking English is prima facie evidence that you’re an illegal immigrant who swam across the Rio Grande. They’ve forgotten that English itself is an immigrant language, not just in the U. S. of A., where it clambered ashore “without papers” along with the pilgrims and the Virginia colonists in the early 1600s, but also in England, where, though it wasn’t called English, ‘the language of the Angles,’ till it got to Britain, it swam the North Sea with marauding Angles and Saxons in the 5th century, CE. Everyone in the Tea Party seems also to forget that these English-speaking illegals eventually turned merry old England into a socialist state with government-run health care.
Despite the fact that English has now gone global and is spoken by more people across the planet than any world language ever before, some Americans fear that English is endangered at home. That’s why Iowa’s Rep. Steve King, a career politician who wants government out of our lives (except for banning abortions and term limits), but firmly believes that government must dictate our language preference, bullied Iowans into passing an official English law in 2002. King scared Iowans with Census figures showing that the state’s Hispanic population had doubled since 1990, going from 1% to 2%, ignoring the fact that more than half of the state’s 80,000 Spanish speakers also spoke English well or very well and the rest were learning it as fast as they could. King then successfully sued his own state for posting election information on its website in languages other than English in violation of the new official English law, further demonstrating his belief that it is the job of government to meddle with the lives of citizens and limit their individual choices.
King then introduced the English Language Unity Act of 2009 in the House of Representatives in order to make English the official language of the United States. H.R. 997 requires English for all official government actions, everything from our laws, which are already in English, to anything that the government does that is “subject to scrutiny by either the press or the public,” which seems to cover everything from committee reports, hearings, and press briefings subject to the Freedom of Information Act, to the sexual peccadilloes and personal indiscretions that some members of Congress keep inadvertently exposing to the scrutiny of the press and the public. In fact it covers pretty much everything the government does except spying and the actions of the IRS, though that’s not a problem because no government agency has the capability to spy or audit in any language but English anyway.
The English Language Unity Act doesn’t actually ban foreign languages. It would allow Americans to study them, though that’s probably not going to happen in significant numbers any time soon. It would allow government employees to use them—unofficially—to further diplomacy, trade, and tourism, assuming that government employees can speak other languages well enough to do so. It would allow foreign language use when necessary to protect public health and safety and to preserve the rights of victims of crimes or of those accused of crimes (government employees don’t typically use other languages to do any of this—instead they hire private translators to do it for them). And it would allow government employees to use terms of art—technical phrases which may be in other languages—as when Congress adjourns for vacation sine die or representatives like Steve King remind new immigrants to join the one formed out of the many: e pluribus unum.
No official language bill has ever come close to passing. In 2006, the Senate amended the Immigration Law to make English the national language of the United States, though later that same day it passed another amendment making English America’s “common and unifying language.” But Congress adjourned, sine die, before the House could act on these confusing and possibly contradictory provisions.
H.R. 997 is currently in committee, but if it passed, it could actually do more harm than good, discouraging immigrants from acquiring English rather than making it easier for them to do so. Regulations already require English for our laws and for citizenship, and they already permit other languages to be used to protect the public at home and to further American interests abroad. But Steve King’s bill would amend the Voting Rights Act to ban non-English ballots, effectively disenfranchising those U.S. new citizens who learned enough English to gain citizenship but not enough to understand complex election issues in that language, and it could send all new Americans the message that, anglophone or not, they aren’t really welcome here and should seriously consider going back where they came from, and if they were actually born in the United States, they should consider going someplace else.
One provision of the English Language Unity Act really seems to cry out, “Hey, let’s pass a law that shoots the government in the foot by encouraging frivolous lawsuits.” Sec. 166 of the act provides that “A person injured by a violation of this chapter may in a civil action . . . obtain appropriate relief.” It’s not clear that anyone in the United States has ever been injured for speaking English. Nor is it easy to imagine that anyone has ever been injured by a government employee who did not speak English (waterboarding and IRS audits are OK so long as they are done in English). But giving everyone the right to sue for damages under an act whose name is supposed to inspire unity seems to be just the kind of disruption to unity that only a Tea Partier could really love.
Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language.