Tuesday, May 23, 2006

English as a "national language"
Our current language panic

Last week the Senate displayed its patriotic fervor (and tried to appease anti-immigrant exclusionists) by declaring English our "national language." Well, duh. Perhaps they thought we hadn't noticed what most people speak. After that legislative flourish, they also declared English is the "common unifying language of the United States" but mandated that nothing in that declaration ''shall diminish or expand any existing rights" regarding multilingual services. That is, they tried to make sure their grand gesture did no real damage.

Our Senatorial weasels are walking a historically familiar tightrope. Every time the country has received a large influx of immigrants, those of us already here have tended to panic because the newcomers talk funny. This happened repeatedly in the 19th century as waves of Germans, Italians, and Slavs migrated to the industrial cities that are now the Rust Belt.

In particular, German was a major language in the United States until World War I. According to Mark Goldman's High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York, as early as the 1830's German speaking newcomers agitated to get their language taught in the public schools. The English-speaking city fathers rebuffed this agitation until 1866, but then hired German speaking teachers. The German speaking community maintained its cultural distinctiveness until well into the 20th century, finally succumbing to "Americanization" during World War I, ironically under the leadership of a mayor, Charles Fuhrmann, from a German background.

The Buffalo story is representative of most of the country in the same time period. It is hard now to imagine how widespread German language and culture was in this country:

During the century preceding the First World War, a pluralistic German-language culture existed in America; as late as 1910 an estimated nine million people in the United States still spoke German as their mother tongue. They formed the broad basis for readership of a large variety of German-language newspapers and publications, supplied membership for German-language clubs and parishes, and were the force behind assorted attempts at offering German as a language of instruction, or at least as a foreign language elective, in the public schools.

Source: The German Americans: An Ethnic Experience

That is, in 1910, roughly ten percent of the population spoke German in the home. And German was simply one among many new immigrant languages. Today we get bent out of shape because many newcomers speak Spanish. Very likely, some of those 19th century German speakers were the ancestors of our current partisans of English as a national language.

As with so many aspects of our current immigration panic, a look at history teaches that we should "get over it!"


Anonymous said...

English is and should always be our national langage

Closed said...

Not to mention that I would guess that Spanish was quite common, and still is, in parts of the Southwest, California, Texas--all of those places that once belonged to Mexico...

This really is another nativist episode but coupled with our overweening military ventures, I see it as dangerous.

janinsanfran said...

The rights of Spanish speaking persons in the areas of the Southwest that used to be part of Mexico were protected in the treaty of Guadlaupe-Hidlago which set the border. There was considerable negociation over language rights when New Mexico was becoming a state.

Not surprisingly, I beleive the U.S. would be a better citizen of the community of nations if more of us knew some language other than English. I can't get worried about immigrants speaking something else though -- they or their kids will learn English to get ahead in life. This was abundantly clear in the high school student essays I read last week.

Zak said...

I'm curious was there ever a similar movement by Italian or irish immigrants?

StalinMalone said...

I'm trying to think of something funnier than the statement, "a better citizen of the community of nations" and I just can't. That is abolutely precious.

janinsanfran said...

Zak -- I am not sure whether you are asking re the Italians and Irish whether there were movements for civil rights or for language rights. Just about every group that has come to the US in a large wave has created community cultural institutions that helped them as newcomers and then became repositories of the language and culture of the "old country" as the group's children assimilated. There are plenty of "cultural centers" in big cities that carry the old cultures on (usually much attentuated.)

Irish and Italians, mostly 19th century and very early 20th century immigrants, brought Catholicism and the institutions of their church (Germans too actually; many were south German Catholics.) The other mediating institution in these groups were "working mens' associations" -- unions. That is happening some today also, as new immigrant low wage workers are the population that some of our few activist unions are trying to organize. For example, see this story.

Dave said...

Interestingly, there was a 1923 Supreme Court case, Meyer v. State of Nebraska, which overturned a state law forbidding the teaching of German to children who hadn't graduated eighth grade.

Language panics will always be with those who just will not attempt to understand anyone who isn't like them. I wonder if the current Supreme Court would apply Meyer if English were ever made the national language by statute, and how.