English - Only: what's the linguistic thinking that underlies the official language movement?

One common argument for preserving dying or endangered languages is that such languages preserve a way of looking at the world that's unique. Every language interprets the world a little differently, embodying the culture of a people in a way that nothing else can. We go so far as to connect language to nationality: the language expresses the essence of the nation in a way that nothing else can.

Such notions connecting language and the people who speak it trace back to the Enlightenment. They grow out of the development of nation states in western Europe, and the growing sense that a political unit and a linguistic group should be one and the same, or if they're not, that the people should unite under the banner of a single language in order to form a strong political bond. Also in the background, at the time, is the newly-emerging philology that connected the Indo-European languages and for the first time showed systematic relationships among them.

So, when someone today starts to talk about how wonderful it is that the Inuit have 25 different words for snow (the number varies with the teller), we tend to think of the special romanticized connection the Inuit have with frozen precipitation. But we should also remember that Americans, who have 25 different words for burgers (hamburger, cheeseburger, bacon burger, bacon cheeseburger, black bean burger, veggie burger, tuna burger, curry burger, the list is endless), must also have some magical cultural connection with chopped meat (or meat substitutes). Or we can "unromanticize" our view of language and simply say, speakers of a language have the ability to stretch that language to make it express the ideas that they need to express. In fact the Inuit and the Americans have a very limited vocabulary for snow and chopped meat, but from it they construct phrases that describe what they need to describe.

But the notion that language is connected to nation and culture is a powerful one, because language does embody cultural practice. So what happens when immigrants lose their language? Do they also lose their culture? Or is it possible to preserve cultural practice (religion, dance, food, holidays, dress, literature) while shifting to the language of their new home?

The official language issue has been around since at least 1789. Here's a clip from "The West Wing" about it.

And here's what a real president a had to say about the official English question during the 2008 primary debates.

The Daily Show's John Oliver presents an in-depth analysis of the "official English" question:


And here is a compilation of news reports about the Spanish Translation of the Star-Spangled Banner