Language Loyalties

AFTERWORD

The Official English Movement:
Reimagining America


By Geoffrey Nunberg




Nations are "imagined communities," in Benedict Anderson's suggestive term. "Imagined," because

    the fellow members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. ... Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity or genuineness, but in the style in which they are imagined.<1>

There are many styles of imagining national communities, out of stories of common lineage, history, religion, or culture. But symbolically, these commonalities are often expressed in terms of a common language, particularly in the European traditions where the modern models of nationality were first formed. The connection between language and nation was a side effect of the introduction of print, which made it possible to project the common experience of the members of the community as a kind of public knowledge. Language has sometimes seemed so important as an instrument of communication that nineteenth-century nationalists came to see it as the essential ingredient of nationhood. As Fichte put it in a celebrated dictum: "Wherever a separate language is found, there is also a separate nation which has the right to manage its affairs ... and rule itself."

But languages are not "found," like biological species with natural limits. They are imaginings, too. A linguist looking at the map of Europe in 1400 would have discerned no "languages" at all in the modern sense, but only patches of local dialects and varieties, scattered under the shadow of Latin. National languages were formed in a process of conscious creation, as a certain variety was standardized, codified, and most important, assigned a cultural value.<2> For it is not language as such that becomes a bond of national unity, but language as the emblem of a particular conception of community. The sense of common experience shared by speakers of vernacular languages like French or Polish cannot be the same as what attaches to divinely sanctioned "truth languages" like Arabic, Hebrew, or Church Latin; the first is a community of men, the second a community of God.

Even within vernacular communities, the social role of language can be imagined and re-imagined in a seemingly infinite number of ways, to reflect the changing conceptions of commonality that are intended to serve as the basis for nationhood. The classic example is the Italian questione della lingua, or "Language Question," a debate that stretches through the entire course of modern Italian history, from Dante, Machiavelli, and Castiglione on down through Manzoni, Croce, Gramsci, and beyond. In retrospect, the issues these writers raised may seem obscure and trivial: should standard Italian be based on archaic Tuscan, modern Tuscan, or some amalgam of literary dialects? But the debate was really concerned with the social basis of Italian nationality Italianità that was conceived as the basis for an eventual Italian nation-state. As Gramsci wrote, speaking of Language Questions in their universal, rather than their specifically Italian manifestations: "Whenever the language question surfaces, in one way or another, it means that another series of problems is imposing itself: the formation and enlargement of the ruling class, the necessity ... of reorganizing cultural hegemony."<3>

Not all questions about language are Language Questions. For one thing, language obviously plays a role in sorting out social and cultural distinctions that are unrelated to national identity. Conversely, the sense of national community can be shaped by other instruments. This is most apparent in multilingual nations like Switzerland and India. But even in essentially monolingual nations, the political basis of the state may be independent of the particular notion of community that the common language implies.

Britain, for example, has had a dominant standard language since the seventeenth century, at least. Yet the legitimacy of the British state has not rested on its claim to represent a cultural order symbolized by standard English, but rather on political institutions like Parliament, the Crown, and the body of English common law. Apart from a brief flirtation with proposals for a language academy in the early eighteenth century (a course that Joseph Priestly disparaged as "unsuitable to the genius of a free nation"),<4> the British have not looked to the state for protection of the English language. It is true that, in practice, they have had few qualms about imposing English on colonial peoples, whether in Scotland, Ireland, or India. And beginning in the late nineteenth century, British educators made systematic efforts to associate the study of English language and literature with nationalist ideology.<5> Symbolically, however, the political apparatus of the British state has been kept separate from the linguistic and cultural order. For all the talk of "the King's English," the speech of the court (when the court spoke English at all) has not been a model of correctness since the early eighteenth century; in language, the monarch neither reigns nor rules.

In this sense, Britain offers a marked contrast to France, where the state has taken an active role in the preservation and promotion of the national language since the Académie française was established in the seventeenth century. It strikes the French as perfectly natural that government should pass laws to limit the amount of airplay given to foreign-language songs; that it should spend fully half its foreign-service budget to subsidize the teaching of the French language abroad; or that recent spelling reforms should have been announced at prime-ministerial press conferences. These may seem trivial matters, but they have a larger symbolic importance. To the extent that the legitimacy of the French state is based on an essentially cultural sense of community, its political form is flexible. France has been a liberal democracy for more than a century (apart from the Nazi occupation) and is likely to remain one. But there is little in the conception of French nationality that requires this form of government, and certainly it is imaginable that the Fifth Republic should someday be replaced by a sixth or seventh. The history of the French nation is not, like the histories of Britain and the United States, identified with the history of a single political regime.

The United States inherited from Britain not just its language, but its understanding of the relation between language and national identity. Initially, there were questions: Would citizens of the new nation would go on speaking "English," or develop a new "American language"? Would the state take a role in standardizing the language and, by extension, the national culture? But by the time the nation was fifty years old, Americans had come to believe that they required no national language of their own, and that American identity could rest on a common commitment to the political institutions established at the nation's founding. The state was seen as neither the representative nor the guardian of an official culture.

Like other aspects of the American experiment, however, the relation between cultural and political institutions has never been definitively resolved. It may be, as Rousseau argued and as recent history seems to bear out, that no nation can successfully constitute itself around a set of purely political ideals. Certainly the American system has always presupposed a rough cultural consensus as a necessary feature of political life. For the most part, that consensus has been negotiated informally. But whenever it has appeared to be threatened from without by large-scale immigration or by the absorption of groups from different cultural backgrounds, there have been movements to bring to bear the power of the state to secure the hegemony of the majority culture, in the ostensible interest of preserving political stability. As the contributions to this Source Book demonstrate, language issues have figured in a wide variety of policy questions: immigration and naturalization, voting rights, treatment of Native Americans, statehood, civil liberties, and especially education. But only in recent years have debates over such issues given rise to a full-blown Language Question, an attempt to redefine the political basis of the American state in terms of a common culture.

In this sense, the Official English question is a new theme in the American political discourse. This may not be obvious, because the debate is often framed around specific programs bilingual education is the most conspicuous example that do not seem to differ qualitatively from other programs instituted to address the problems of minorities, whether English-speaking or not. Official English advocates have often explained their movement as a response to the "politicization" of these questions by "special interest groups" that are interested more in promoting ethnic separatism or pork-barrelling for their own constituents than in helping language minorities. But the initial "politicization" of issues like bilingual education was part of the routine process of policy formulation, as enacted at the level of lobbying, Congressional testimony, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, litigation, and so forth. In the normal course of things, you would expect the opposition to these programs to take the form of the same kind of political activity as indeed it has, down to the politics-as-usual accusations of personal ambition and venality.

But the opposition to these programs has not stopped with politics-as-usual. It has used mass-mailing techniques to establish a national political movement, with its membership drawn from groups with no particular interest in questions of immigration or minority education. It has mounted a number of successful statewide initiatives aimed at eliminating the provision of government services in languages other than English, and it has promoted boycotts to restrict the use of foreign languages in advertising, signage, and broadcasting. And in its symbolically most ambitious effort, it has called for amending the Constitution so as to declare English the official language of the United States.

This is a response calculated to move the discussion of questions of policy into the realm of symbolic politics, with the result that it becomes difficult (and somewhat irrelevant) to debate the issues on their substantive merits. Questions about the effectiveness of bilingual education can be fairly discussed in an academic forum or a legislative hearing, but not in the popular press or in thirty-second sound bites. In a state electoral campaign, voters are in no position to evaluate the claim that the country faces a "dangerous drift toward multilingualism" on the basis of the demographic evidence, or to weigh the parallels to Canada or Belgium in the light of a familiarity with the histories of those nations. This has been an understandable source of frustration to opponents of the Official English movement, especially scholars familiar with the American minority-language situation. As the sociologist Joshua Fishman asks: "Aren't the comparisons to Sri Lanka or India not only far-fetched and erroneous, but completely removed from the reality of the U.S.A.? ... Why are facts so useless in the discussion?"

The answer is that the debate is no longer concerned with the content or effect of particular programs, but with the symbolic importance that people have come to attach to these matters. Official English advocates admit as much when they emphasize that their real goal is to "send a message" about the role of English in American life. From this point of view, it is immaterial whether the provision of interpreters for workers compensation hearings or of foreign-language nutrition information actually constitute a "disincentive" to learning English, or whether their discontinuation would work a hardship on recent immigrants. Programs like these merely happen to be high-visibility examples of government's apparent willingness to allow the public use of languages other than English for any purpose whatsoever. In fact, one suspects that most Official English advocates are not especially concerned about specific programs per se, since they will be able to achieve their symbolic goals even if bilingual services are protected by judicial intervention or legislative inaction (as has generally been the case where Official English measures have passed). The real objective of the campaign is the "message" that it intends to send.

What actually is the message? That depends, in part, on who is listening. A number of opponents of the Official English movement have stressed its immediate significance as a reaction to the perceived "demands" of immigrant groups. It is undeniable that racism and xenophobia have played an important role in the electoral successes of the Official English movement, and that some of the movement's organizers have espoused explicitly anti-Hispanic and anti-Catholic views.

Yet this cannot be the entire story. Official English has attracted wide support among people who would not ordinarily countenance openly racist or xenophobic measures. In the 1986 California election, for example, the English-language amendment to the state constitution was adopted by fully 73 percent of the electorate, including large majorities in liberal areas like Palo Alto and Marin County. Nationally, the U.S. English organization has been able to attract approximately five times as many members as the restrictionist Federation for American Immigration Reform, which shares the same founder and direct-mail fundraising apparatus. Apparently, many people will support English Only measures who would be squeamish about directly supporting immigration restriction. Also, it is significant that many of the national politicians who have sponsored Official English legislation Senators Huddleston of Kentucky, Burdick of North Dakota, and Symms of Idaho; Representatives Emerson of Missouri and Smith of Nebraska come from states in which immigration is not a pressing issue, and where the scapegoating of immigrants would hardly seem to be an effective way to distract constituents from their economic problems.

So the Official English movement is really sending two messages. The first is concerned specifically with members of language-minority groups, who are understandably sensitive to its xenophobic overtones. Siobhan Nicolau and Rafael Valdivieso believe that the movement is telling Hispanics: "We don't trust you we don't like you we don't think you can fit in you are too different and there seem to be far too many of you." Already, in states where Official English initiatives have passed, they are being interpreted as a licence to discriminate on the basis of language. But long after the immediate occasion for the movement has receded after the children of the new immigrant groups have moved into the linguistic and social mainstream and established themselves as "good Americans" like generations of immigrants before them the legacy of the Official English movement may be felt in a changed conception of American nationality itself.

Of the various "messages," this one may be hardest to perceive. Proponents of Official English claim that they seek merely to recognize a state of affairs that has existed since the founding of the nation. After two hundred years of common-law cohabitation with English, we have simply decided to make an honest woman of her, for the sake of the children. To make the English language "official," however, is not merely to acknowledge it as the language commonly used in commerce, mass communications, and public affairs. Rather, it is to invest English with a symbolic role in national life, and to endorse a cultural conception of American identity as the basis for political unity. And while the general communicative role of English in America has not changed over the past two hundred years, the cultural importance that people attach to the language has evolved considerably.

Early linguistic patriots like John Adams and Noah Webster were less concerned with the relation between the majority language and minority languages like German than with the relation between the language of Americans and the "English" from which it descended. What is significant is that the Founders' viewed American political institutions not as resting on a national language or a national culture, but as giving rise to them. As Noah Webster wrote:

    From the changes in civil policy, manners, arts of life, and other circumstances attending the settlement of English colonies in America, most of the language of heraldry, hawking, hunting, and especially that of the old feudal and hierarchical establishments of England will become utterly extinct in this country; much of it already forms part of the neglected rubbish of antiquity.<6>

Thus the free institutions of the new nation would naturally lead to the formation of a new and independent culture, as symbolized by a distinct language. William Thornton made much the same argument in 1793, when he told Americans:

    You have corrected the dangerous doctrines of European powers, correct now the languages you have imported ... The AMERICAN LANGUAGE will thus be as distinct as the government, free from all the follies of unphilosophical fashion, and resting upon truth as its only regulator.<7>

The national language was to serve as the vehicle for public letters "literature" in the broad eighteenth century sense, which included sermons, philosophy, history, and natural science whose success would validate the American political experiment in the eyes of the world.

Thus the emergence of a distinct national language was seen to be an effect, rather than a cause, of the success of American democratic institutions. This understanding was summed up by Tocqueville when he referred to the "influence which a democratic social condition and democratic institutions may exercise over language itself, which is the chief instrument of thought."<8> Ultimately, of course, America did develop an autonomous literary culture without any active encouragement from the state, and without having to rupture its linguistic and cultural ties with Britain. That literary culture was naturally a source of national pride and an important means of consolidating national identity. But it was not regarded as the basis of national union.

The question of a national language did not emerge again until the turn of the twentieth century, when Americans found themselves confronted with the large numbers of non-English-speaking immigrants. Previously, language played a relatively minor role in nativist movements, which chiefly exploited fears that newcomers would dilute the religious and racial homogeneity of the nation. But in the first decades of this century, immigrants came to be seen as sources of political contagion. In 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, author of the infamous Palmer Raids, in which more than eight thousand "radicals" were swept up and deported, could confidently assert that "fully 90 percent of Communist and anarchist agitation is traceable to aliens." <9>

One answer to the imagined threat of imported sedition was the "Americanization" campaign, a concerted effort, as John Higham writes, to "heat and stir the melting pot." (The other was immigration restriction, enacted in a series of laws in the early 1920s.) The most important ingredient in the Americanization program was the effort to force immigrants to move from their native tongues to English not just by providing English instruction, but by actively discouraging the learning and use of other languages. A Nebraska law stipulated that all public meetings be conducted in English; Oregon required foreign-language periodicals to provide an English translation of their entire contents.<10> More than thirty states mandated English as the language of instruction in all schools, public and private.

These measures were based on a particular view of the relation between language and thought, in which speaking a foreign language seemed inimical to grasping the fundamental concepts of democratic society. The Nebraska Supreme Court, in upholding a state statute barring instruction in languages other than English below the ninth grade, warned against the "baneful effects" of educating children in foreign languages, which must "naturally inculcate in them the ideas and sentiments foreign to the best interests of their country."

The complement of such suspicions was a view of English as a kind of "chosen language," the bearer of Anglo-Saxon (or at least Anglo-American) ideals and institutions. English was turned into a kind of "truth-language," like Arabic, Hebrew, and Church Latin, except that the truths for which it provided a unique means of expression were those of the secular religion of American democracy. At the New York State constitutional convention in 1916, during debate on an English-literacy requirement for voting, one delegate traced the connection between English and democratic values back to the Magna Carta (a text often mentioned in this context, though it was written in Latin): "You have got to learn our language because that is the vehicle of the thought that has been handed down from the men in whose breasts first burned the fire of freedom."<11> Theodore Roosevelt sounded a similar note when he insisted that: "We must have but one flag. We must also have but one language. That must be the language of the Declaration of Independence, of Washington's Farewell Address, of Lincoln's Gettysburg speech and second inaugural."

What is striking about this list is what it does not include: there is no mention of the language of Irving, Longfellow, or Emerson, much less the reference to "the language of Shakespeare" that British contemporaries would have considered obligatory. One doubts whether Webster would have approved of this list. Where are all the flowers of the literary culture that was to vindicate the American experiment in the eyes of the world? It is not that Roosevelt and his contemporaries were indifferent to literary traditions, but for them it was the political uses of English that made it an instrument of national union. The language was no longer seen as a consequence of political institutions, but as a cause of them.

This signaled a clear change in the conception of American nationality, with English as the soup stock of the melting pot. As such, Americanization was probably a more benign policy than the racially based nativism that held that immigrants were biologically incapable of adapting to American life. In the view of James J. Davis, Secretary of Labor under Harding and Coolidge, the earlier "Nordic" immigrants were "the beaver type that built up America, whereas the newer immigrants were rat-men trying to tear it down, and obviously rat-men could never become beavers."<12> By contrast, the proponents of Americanization put the burden of transmitting values on cultural institutions, rather than on racial descent. For example, here is Ellwood P. Cubberly, dean of the Stanford University School of Education, describing the goals of the Americanization campaign:

    Our task is to break up [immigrant] groups or settlements, to assimilate and amalgamate these people as part of our American race, and to implant in their children, as far as can be done, the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order, and our popular government.<13>

While this passage may strike the modern reader as smug and condescending, it is not literally racist, at least in its historical context. Cubberly obviously believed that rat-men could be turned into beavers, if only you caught them young enough.

Taken literally, the chosen-language doctrine does not stand up under scrutiny. The Founders would have been distressed to be told that the truths they held to be "self-evident" could have been apprehended only by other English speakers; nothing could have been further from their own Enlightenment universalism. And there is a peculiarly American fallacy in the supposition that the meanings of words like liberty and rights are somehow immutably fixed by the structure of the language. It is the linguistic equivalent of the historical doctrine that Daniel Boorstin has described as "givenness": the belief that American values were defined at the outset by the Founders, and continue to shape our institutions and experience in an uninterrupted chain, "so that our past merges indistinguishably into our present."<14>

But the doctrine did useful symbolic work. It implied that the features of the old-stock Protestant culture could be abstracted in universally accessible terms. As the hysteria of the war years and the early twenties had abated and the flow of new immigrants was stanched to a trickle, the doctrine could be given a more temperate form. It was absorbed into the body of "invented traditions" of schoolroom rituals and folklore, which shaped the patriotism of generations of Americans of both native-stock and immigrant backgrounds, and with it, an equally patriotic attachment to the English language itself. It has never been officially retired, and you may still encounter paeans to the political genius of English. But the conception of American nationality has been changing out from under it, and when later waves of immigration caused language issues to be raised again, the new case for a common language was made in very different terms.

The dominant theme in the rhetoric of the Official English movement is the emphasis on English as a lingua franca, the "common bond" that unites all Americans. As former Senator S. I. Hayakawa puts it, the language alone has "made a society out of the hodgepodge of nationalities, races, and colors represented in the immigrant hordes that people our nation," and has enabled Americans to draw up "the understandings and agreements that make a society possible."

Modern official-language advocates are careful, however, to avoid any suggestion that English has any unique virtues that make it appropriate in this role as a common bond. A U.S. English publication explains: "We hold no special brief for English. If Dutch (or French, or Spanish, or German) had become our national language, we would now be enthusiastically defending Dutch." (It is hard to imagine Noah Webster or Theodore Roosevelt passing over the special genius of English so lightly.)<15> In fact, the movement often seems eager to discharge English of any cultural responsibility whatsoever. Its arguments are cast with due homage to the sanctity of pluralism. Indeed, its advocates often rest their case on the observation that the very cultural heterogeneity of modern America makes English "no longer a bond, but the bond between all of us," in the words of Gerda Bikales, the former executive director of U.S. English. Or as Senator Huddleston argues, a common language has enabled us "to develop a stable and cohesive society that is the envy of many fractured ones, without imposing any strict standards of homogeneity." Official English advocates seem to suggest that Americans need have nothing at all in common, so long as we have the means for talking about it.

Unlike the Americanizers, they no longer stress the role of English as an instrument of ideological indoctrination. The Cubans, Mexicans, Central Americans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Chinese, Haitians, Russians, and others who have made up recent waves of arrivals are generally and accurately seen either as seekers after economic opportunity or as refugees from oppressive regimes of the left or right. Nor, in the Reagan-Bush-Gorbachev era, is there cause for concern that immigrants will add fuel to domestic radical movements or ignite labor unrest. At the most, they seem to many a bit too assertive about their rights, and insufficiently enthusiastic about cultural assimilation. But then, the great mass of turn-of-the-century immigrants had no more interest in political questions than present-day immigrants do. What has changed is not the political nature of the new arrivals, but the way we perceive their differences from ourselves. So we might well ask: how have we changed, if our political unity can be threatened by unassimilated immigrants with whom we have no ideological differences?

Americans are no less patriotic than they were a century ago, but their sense of community is mediated in different ways. In 1900 it was unimaginable that there should be occasions at which all Americans could be present, or that many Americans could acquire the sense of national identity that comes of frequent movement around the country. There were, of course, newspapers and books, but literacy was far from universal. So the burden of creating a sense of community was naturally laid on traditional institutions of schools, churches, and the like, which could ensure that the experiences and ceremonies that ratified the national identity would be faithfully replicated from one locality to the next.

But the twentieth century brought means of replicating experience that required no institutional intervention, most notably the movies, radio, and television. Watching "The Cosby Show" or "NBC Nightly News," we can be assured that millions of other Americans are participating in the very same experience laughing at the same jokes and finding the same reports noteworthy. More important, these media have the power to show Americans to one another, with such immediacy that we may be deceived into believing that the awareness of community can be created without any exercise of the imagination at all. Together with the extraordinary increase in geographical mobility and mass merchandising, the media create a vastly extended repertory of shared national experience we view the same videos, eat at the same restaurant chains, visit the same theme parks, wait on the same gas lines, and so on.

The new mechanisms of national community are capable of imposing a high degree of cultural and ideological uniformity without explicit indoctrination, or indeed, without seeming to "impose" at all. This is what makes it possible for us to indulge in the rhetoric of "cherished diversity," and even to suppose that it is only our language that we have in common. But the pluralism that Official English advocates profess to cherish is the denatured ethnicity of third- and fourth-generation Americans, monolingual in English and disconnected from any real ties to the language and culture of their ancestors. For the most part, this "lifestyle" ethnicity is a matter of food, fashion, and festivals, which add a note of "colorfulness" that serves to "enrich" and, in the course of things, to mask the homogeneity of the values that regulate American middle-class life.

It could be argued that the very abundance of the common experience of national life makes linguistic unity superfluous. Benedict Anderson has suggested that new technologies make it possible to create a sense of community without a common language:

    Multilingual broadcasting can conjure up the imagined community to illiterates and populations with different mother tongues. (Here there are resemblances to the conjuring up of medieval Christendom through visual representations and bilingual literati.) ... Nations can now be imagined without linguistic communality.<16>

This seems to be true in many states that have emerged in recent times not just in Africa and Asia, but even in Switzerland, the last polity in Western Europe to have developed a modern sense of nationhood. In the United States, too, it is certainly easier for non-English-speaking immigrants to develop a sense of American identity today than at the turn of the century, thanks to national foreign-language media that reproduce many of the same images and programs as the English-language media, and to the ubiquitous apparatus of consumer culture.

Yet in America, the new mechanisms for establishing a sense of national community have only increased concerns about linguistic disunity. There are several reasons why this should be so. First, the new mechanisms depend on a voluntary participation in the public discourse, rather than on explicit intervention by traditional institutions. This may explain why the Official English movement appears indifferent to the classes in Americanism and citizenship that played such an important part in the program of earlier assimilation movements. It is as if the schools can no longer make good Americans, but only give students a knowledge of English so that Americanization can happen to them in their free time. Then, too, the very homogeneity and ubiquity of the mechanisms of mass culture make departures from the cultural norm seem all the more aberrant. The presence of people who do not have access to this experience or more to the point, who cannot be assumed to have such access becomes increasingly intolerable. If our common values can command such widespread assent in the face of the apparent "diversity" of European-American life, then surely it is not unreasonable to expect the members of other cultures to conform to them.

Finally, linguistic diversity is more conspicuous than it was a century ago. To be aware of the large numbers of non-English-speakers in 1900, it was necessary to live in or near one of their communities, whereas today it is only necessary to flip through a cable television dial, drive past a Spanish-language billboard, or (in many states) apply for a driver's licence. At a best guess, there are fewer speakers of foreign languages in America now than there were then, in both absolute and relative numbers. But what matters symbolically is the widespread impression of linguistic diversity, particularly among people who have no actual contact with speakers of languages other than English.

Inevitably, the effect of the new mechanisms of community has been to make American identity increasingly a matter of cultural uniformity, as symbolized by linguistic uniformity, and to diminish the importance of explicit ideology. This development is partially hidden behind the rhetoric of "pluralism" and "cultural diversity," but it emerges, as repressed concerns are wont to do, in the nightmares of the Official English advocates, which are haunted by specters of separatism and civil strife. Hayakawa writes:

    For the first time in our history, our nation is faced with the possibility of the kind of linguistic division that has torn apart Canada in recent years; that has been a major feature of the unhappy history of Belgium, split into speakers of French and Flemish; that is at this very moment a bloody division between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations of Sri Lanka.

Here, too, it is notable that the line of argument has no precedent in earlier nativist movements. Language conflicts were probably more common on the world scene in 1920 than they are now and, certainly figured more prominently in American public consciousness during the First World War and the debate over the League of Nations. Yet the experience of other nations was rarely if ever mentioned in the Americanization campaign. Not that the possibility of a multilingual America seemed more remote then than now. Indeed, the presence of language minorities was widely (if inaccurately) perceived as an immediate threat to political stability and prompted calls for more drastic steps than anything that the contemporary Official English movement has yet proposed. For supporters of Americanization, however, international analogies were irrelevant. The point of establishing linguistic uniformity was not to preserve just any common culture, but to ensure universal assent to the particular ideology associated with English-language institutions. There was nothing that we had to learn about our national identity from comparisons with Alsace or Austria-Hungary; or for that matter, from comparisons with monolingual non-English-speaking nations like France or Japan.

So why should foreign examples of language conflicts strike a responsive chord now? Not, again, because there is any actual threat to the status of English as a common language. Not even Official English advocates suggest that there is any imminent danger of separatist movements springing up in East Los Angeles or Dade County. But if the specter of civil strife is implausible, its appeal to the popular imagination is nevertheless an indication of the widespread acceptance of a changed sense of national community. If American identity is based simply on a common cultural experience, then the experience of other nations is suddenly relevant to our situation. It is notable that in the cautionary examples that Official English proponents like to invoke, particularly Canada and Belgium, the ethnic divisions are generally perceived as having no ideological significance.<17> If Quebec were to become an independent state, one assumes, it would be a liberal democracy like the rest of Canada, and like France, a secular state, despite its Catholic majority. The obvious moral is that cultural and linguistic differences alone are sufficient to divide a state any state, including ours.

The history of American language controversies reveals a profound and troubling change in our conception of national community. For Noah Webster, the American language was a reflection of our political institutions. For Theodore Roosevelt, it was the instrument for inculcating a sense of political tradition. For proponents of the modern Official English movement, it is simply the guarantor of the cultural sameness that for them political unity seems to require. So the burden of nationality gradually shifts from political institutions to cultural commonalities, to the point where "Americanism," like "Frenchness," "Italianità," and all the rest, becomes essentially a cultural matter. Not that there is anything wrong with France, Italy, or other nations; but America was supposed to be different.

Obviously, the Official English movement is not the cause of the changed sense of nationality; but neither is it simply a symptom. As I noted at the outset, language has always done the work of symbolizing cultural categories that are in themselves too deep and inchoate to be directly expressed. Even if the official-language movement is really an "official-culture movement," it could not have been formulated in such terms. We could not very well entertain a constitutional amendment that read, "The United States shall henceforth be officially constituted around such-and-such a conception of American culture." It is only when the issues are cast in terms of language that they become amenable to direct political action, and that culture can be made an official component of American identity. The great danger is in reading the debate as literally concerned with language alone all the more because these are relatively new themes in the American political discourse, and we have no history of Language Questions to refer to. Of course, there are real questions of language at stake in all this, but they are not merely questions of language; they never are.


1. Benedict R. O'G. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983), p. 15.

2. The process is often referred to with Heinz Kloss's term of Ausbau, or roughly, "extension." See Kloss, Entwicklung Neuer Germanischer Kultursprachen (Munich: Pohl, 1952).

3. Antonio Gramsci, "Note sullo studio della grammatica," in Quaderni del Carcere, ed. Valentino Gerrantano, vol. 3 (Turin: 1975), p. 2347.

4. Joseph Priestly, The Rudiments of English Grammar (London: 1761), p. vii.

5. See Brian Doyle, English and Englishness (London: Routledge, 1989); Tony Crowley, Standard English and the Politics of Language (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989).

6. From the Preface to A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806); quoted in Homer D. Babbidge, Jr., ed, On Being American (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1967), p. 134.

7. Cadmus; or, a Treatise on the Elements of Written Language (Philadelphia: 1793), p. v.

8. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), II: 64.

9. Quoted in David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), p. 193.

10. John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1986-1925, 2d ed. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988), p. 260.

11. Quoted in Dennis Baron, The English Only Question: An Official Language for Americans? (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 59.

12. Quoted in Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970 (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 142.

13. Quoted in James Crawford, Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory, and Practice, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles: Bilingual Educational Services), p. 27.

14. Daniel Boorstin, "Why a Theory Seems Needless," in Hidden History (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 77.

15. "Talking Points," March, 1983. A U.S. English newsletter of March 1983 does observe that English is capable of "subtle nuance and great precision of meaning" and that the language has an impressively large vocabulary (but of course the same claims might be made about the language of any developed society). It notes, too, that English is the premier language of international communications, which surely would be a good reason for choosing English as a national language if we were starting the country from scratch. But what is notable is that all of these claims involve the practical utility, real or imagined, of having English as a common language. They suggest no intrinsic tie between the genius of English and our particular conception of national identity.

16. Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 123.

17. In point of fact, of course, the divisions in these countries owe more to long histories of social and economic inequality than to language differences per se, as the contributions to Part VI of this collection make clear; but few Americans are familiar with the details of Canadian or Belgian history, and these considerations are ignored when it comes to drawing the comparison to the American case.


COPYRIGHT NOTICE: From LANGUAGE LOYALTIES: A SOURCE BOOK ON THE OFFICIAL ENGLISH CONTROVERSY, by James Crawford, published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 1992 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of both the author and the University of Chicago Press.