Copyright © 2005 Henrietta W. Hay
The Official Language?
December 9, 2005
Parlez vous Franšaise? Well, no. Se habla Espa˝ol? N-o-o Sprechen zie Deutch? Huh uh. Do you speak English? Sure. Do you speak cat? No,
but Mercury the Wonder Cat does, fluently. I have been trying to figure out his body language, not to mention his verbal conversation. Wouldn't it be wonderful if at least one of us were bilingual? I am ashamed to admit that I am one of those Americans who speaks only one language. I took a year of French in college, but that has long faded from my memory except for bon jour and s'il vous plait and similar intellectual comments.
But through the years people keep trying to create an "official language." In 1923 Congress considered a bill to make the "American" language official, but it died in committee. In our own state the Colorado Constitution of 1876 provided that laws be published in English, Spanish and German. By 1988 we were considerably less tolerant and added an English Only amendment to our constitution. Of course it hasn't solved anything, but there wasn't much to solve.
Molly Ivins thought the whole idea pretty funny and cited a Texas legislator with an attitude who apparently agreed when he said, "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for me."
What's the big deal?
The whole issue hardly seems to pose an earth-shattering danger to the nation. English has always been, in fact if not in law, the official language of the United States. The Mayflower Compact, the first written constitution in America, was written in English with funny spelling.
Our Founding Fathers were so mad at Great Britain that they considered selecting German or Hebrew or Greek as an official language of the new country, but English was the language of commerce, and they already knew how to speak it.
It has served us well. Walt Whitman said that, "Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all."
One problem is that Mississippi and Maine and Brooklyn are hard to understand here in Colorado, but we have learned to cope.
Of course English is and should continue to be our common language. But it does not need to be encased in the concrete of a constitutional amendment. That process would be about as wasteful a use of time and resources as the flag burning amendment.
That does not deny the cultural value of bilingualism. Because I am language impaired, I know that I have missed a big part of the richness and understanding of other cultures. Charles V, King of Spain, Holy Roman Emperor in the 16th century had it right. "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse."
Although English is the "unofficial official" language, those of us who speak it might well pay more attention to grammar. And people living here who do not speak should be taught. But that's another issue.
I like the he mother cat who was walking down the street with her kittens. They met a dog. The mother cat barked several times and the dog ran away. Turning to her kittens the cat said, "Now do you see how important it is to know a second language?"