English, the official national language
by Dennis Baron
Last week the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to the Immigration Law that would make English the national language of the United States. Later the same day it passed another amendment making English our common and unifying language. While political analysts and lexicographers tried figure out whether a national language is divisive, and a common one, unifying, the Senate settled on making English national rather than common, without saying what that might mean.
Three weeks earlier, responding to the release of a CD featuring the national anthem in Spanish, George Bush told reporters in the Rose Garden that everybody in this country should speak English, especially when singing the Star-Spangled Banner. But then it came out that the president himself had sung the national anthem in Spanish when he was on the campaign trail. Even that was ambiguous, though, because he might have sung “America.” By way of explanation, a White House aide said that the president preferred singing to reading. And after the Senate made English either national or possibly common and unifying, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told reporters that it wouldn’t be a problem, because Pres. Bush didn’t support a national language at all.
Mr. Gonzales is something of an expert on semantics. In a famous memo to the president he once defined torture as nothing less than "organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,” or mental suffering “lasting for months or even years.” That definition was quickly entered into the White House Dictionary. But the AG’s statement about the national language was immediately contradicted by a White House spokesperson who said that Mr. Gonzales had been caught in a “linguistic snare.” Reporters wanted to know what a linguistic snare might be, but the spokesperson reassured them that it did not constitute torture, adding that the president certainly supported a national language, just not an official one.
If all this isn’t confusing enough, the House of Representatives, without checking either with the Senate or with Karl Rove, is considering its own Republican-sponsored English Language Unity Act that declares English the official language of the United States. The House proposal also orders the federal government to preserve and enhance the role of English. And it encourages any person injured by a violation of the official language law to file a civil action in order to obtain appropriate relief.
The attorney general has yet to comment on the likelihood that the House bill will create a flurry of nuisance suits, filed by persons seeking relief because the president sang the national anthem in Spanish at an election rally which they were forced to attend by the Republican National Committee, although Mr. Gonzales is likely to rule that such an extraordinary rendition of the national anthem would only constitute torture if the president sang for months, if not years, or if they were subsequently forced to go duck hunting with the vice president. If the president actually sang “America,” then the question is moot.
With luck, Congress will acknowledge what language teachers and minority-language speakers in the U.S. have learned the hard way, that America is a graveyard for foreign languages. We don’t need an official national language, nor do we need to preserve and enhance the role of English, because – as the 2000 Census tells us – just about everybody in the United States either speaks English already, is learning English, or will start learning English by the time the National Guard sets up its southern perimeter in Arizona, where it is supposed to give newcomers English lessons and train them to serve in the local police. And if the government doesn’t give immigrants the English classes they demand, they will sue. In the meantime, someone had better let Alberto Gonzales out of his linguistic snare before he starts writing another definition.