Port: Do we need English to be our nation's official language?
Sen. Kevin Cramer is sponsoring legislation to make English the official language of our country. But is it even necessary?
MINOT, N.D. — Sen. Kevin Cramer is sponsoring new federal legislation that would make English the official language of the United States.
You may have thought it was already the official language, but it isn't. The United States has never had an official language.
Most states have made English their official language, and some have even designated "official" status to multiple languages. Hawaii recognizes the Hawaiian language alongside English. Alaska recognizes English and 19 other languages originating from the Indigenous peoples in that state.
Here in North Dakota, Chapter 54-02 of the Century Code — the section of our statutes recognizing all kinds of official things, like the official state fruit (the chokecherry) and, most recently, the official state sport ( curling ) — states that "the English language is the official language of the state of North Dakota."
That's been the law since 1987.
But, hang on, that section of law says our official motto — "Serit ut alteri saeclo prosit" or "one sowes for the benefit of another age" — is a Latin phrase. Is it illegal for a state where the official language is English to have an official motto in Latin?
Interesting! But we'll leave that controversy for another day and another column. Let's get back to Cramer's proposal to make English our official national language. Is this something we need?
"Our Founding Fathers used English to create the most precious and fundamental document of all time," Cramer said in a news release announcing his support for the legislation he's co-sponsoring with Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance. “Whether we are writing our nation’s laws, government documents, or other programs and policies, English has always been the go-to language to communicate with the American people. Establishing English as our national language is long overdue.”
The legislation doesn't prohibit the feds from using other languages. So things such as tax documents or official communications could still be translated into other languages, just as they are now. This legislation would only require that the federal government conduct its official business in English, like when it acts in some legally binding way or when it conducts a naturalization ceremony, which are two examples by Cramer in his news release.
But isn't that what we're already doing?
Cramer invokes the founders, noting that they wrote our Constitution in English, but the founders also didn't bother to create an official language for the country. Our country has survived 246 years without making English the official language, yet there's no question of its dominance in our culture.
Today 239 million, or about 78.5% , of Americans speak English as their primary language, dwarfing Spanish in second place at just 13.2%. Consider that a lot of the people who primarily speak Spanish, or some other language, probably speak English, too. And their children, born and raised here? They'll probably be English-first speakers.
English doesn't need the protection of "official" status. English is the most commonly spoken language in the world . It is, if you'll pardon me for veering into Latin again, the lingua franca of our global culture. It's so pervasive that Italy, as a case in point, is trying to pass a law to protect Italian by penalizing the use of English .
There are a number of reasons for this. The pervasiveness of British colonization (they weren't kidding when they said, "the sun never sets on the British Empire" ). The dominance of American foreign trade. The development of the American research university, which for generations has led the world in scientific advancements. The popularity of entertainment industries — music, movies, and literature — residing in English-speaking countries.
My favorite explanation for the dominance of English is how often it steals shamelessly from other languages. Acumen, avarice, and atrocity are examples of Latin words in the English lexicon.
We got berserk, ugly, muck, skull, knife, die, and cake from the Vikings. Gummy, noodle, and seltzer are Germanic words.
Breeze, ranch, and patio are Spanish, while avatar, bandana, and cot are from Hindi.
English is a mongrel language, and I don't use that term ( which has Germanic roots! ) pejoratively ( that one is French ).
The propensity for English speakers to find good words in other languages and make them their own is one reason why English is so dominant as a language. We've never needed to protect English from other languages because English has a way of incorporating those languages into itself.
Again, English is the most commonly spoken language in the world, and not because of any law, but because English speakers, including Americans, have found so much success in commerce, science, art, and politics, and because English itself is a linguistic tapestry of world culture.
I don't think Cramer's legislation is necessarily bad. I'm just not sure I see the point.