Lingo Jingo: English Only and the New Nativism

By Nunberg, Geoffrey | The American Prospect, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview

Lingo Jingo: English Only and the New Nativism

Nunberg, Geoffrey, The American Prospect

Since Slovakia became an independent state a few years ago, the Slovak majority has been imposing increasingly stringent language restrictions on the ethnic Hungarian minority, whom they suspect of irredentist leanings. Hungarian place-names must be changed to accord with Slovak spellings, all official business must be transacted in Slovak even in districts that are almost entirely Hungarian-speaking, and so forth. It's a familiar enough pattern in that part of the world, where antique ethnic antagonisms are routinely fought out on the field of language, except that in this case, the Slovakians have insisted that their policies are in fact thoroughly modern--even American. By way of demonstrating this, the Slovak State Language Law of 1995 cites the example of American official-English bills, and the drafters of the law made a point of entertaining a delegation from the U.S. English organization. In American eyes, though, the similarities might lead to another, more disquieting conclusion: What if it's we who are becoming more like them?

For most of our history, language has not been a major theme in American political life. The chief reason for that, to be sure, is that God in his wisdom has given us a single dominant language, with few real dialects or patois of the sort that European nations have had to deal-with in the course of their nation building. (One notable exception is the post-Creole variety spoken by many African Americans.) It's true that America has always had substantial communities of speakers of non-English languages: indigenous peoples; groups absorbed in the course of colonial expansion, like the Francophones of Louisiana and the Hispanics of the Southwest; and the great flows of immigrants from 1880 to 1920 and during the past 30 years. And since the eighteenth century there have been recurrent efforts to discourage or suppress the use of other languages by various minorities, particularly at the time of the nativist movement of the turn of the century. But the focus on language has always been opportunistic, a convenient way of underscoring the difference between us and them; the issue has always subsided as minorities have become anglicized, leaving little symbolic residue in its wake. Unlike the Slovakians, the Italians, the Germans, or those paragons of official orality, the French, we have not until now made how we speak an essential element of what we are.

Given the minor role that language has played in our historical self-conception, it isn't surprising that the current English-only movement began in the political margins, the brainchild of slightly flaky figures like Senator S.I. Hayakawa and John Tanton, a Michigan ophthalmologist who co-founded the U.S. English organization as an outgrowth of his involvement in zero population growth and immigration restriction. (The term "English-only" was originally introduced by supporters of a 1984 California initiative opposing bilingual ballots, a stalking horse for other official-language measures. Leaders of the movement have since rejected the label, pointing out that they have no objection to the use of foreign languages in the home. But the phrase is a fair characterization of the goals of the movement so far as public life is concerned.)

Until recently, English-only was not a high priority for the establishment right. President Bush was opposed to the movement, and Barbara Bush once went so far as to describe it as "racist." And while a number of figures in the Republican leadership have been among the sponsors of official-language bills, most did not become vocal enthusiasts of the policy until the successes of English-only measures and of anti-immigrant initiatives like California's Proposition 187 persuaded them that anti-immigrant politics might have broad voter appeal. Senator Dole endorsed English-only in the 1996 presidential campaign, and Newt Gingrich recently described bilingualism as a menace to American civilization. …

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