In Tongues

Originally published in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1992.

Bigotry, it has been said, is the spawn of fear and ignorance in combination.   There are few instances where this is more clearly illustrated than House Resolution 123, The Language of Government Act.  Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Cape Girardeau), the resolution's author, wants to make sure the federal government does business in English and only English.    

Language may be the last acceptable bastion of cultural xenophobia.  It comes naturally to us and is a major feature of the stereotypical Ugly American.  That doesn't mean it makes any sense.   

Throughout history language intolerance has been the province of totalitarians and fearmongers.  From Nazi Germany to latter day Azerbaidzhan language suppression is the hallmark of the tenuous hold of tyrants.

Emerson's legislation has attracted more than a hundred co-sponsors in Congress, including Republican Mel Hancock and Democrat Ike Skelton from the Missouri delegation.  A spokesman for Emerson says the backing is bipartisan and geographically diverse.  The congressman's office expects hearings on the issue to get underway in early 1992.  

Moves by border states toward bilingualism and the secessionist rumblings of the French-speaking Quebec province in Canada sparked Emerson to action.  He says there is a groundswell of support for a common language, evidenced by a September rally in Washington and survey results that show non-English speakers themselves in favor of the measure.  

Emerson "wanted to make sure we don't have another civil war, this time over language," his spokesman said.  The sad irony is that the bill, if it does anything, could engender just that.

"From linguistic intolerance we go by easy stages to national intolerance pure and simple, where language serves merely as a means of expression," wrote Mario Pei in his book "The Story of Language."  The process works in the other direction, too.

Wholly removed from the bias of this proposal is its futility.

Emerson is careful to point out his support for cultural diversity.  But disclaimers do nothing to vitiate the prejudice inherent in his actions.  Throughout history language intolerance has been the province of totalitarians and fearmongers.  From Nazi Germany to latter day Azerbaidzhan language suppression is the hallmark of the tenuous hold of tyrants.


Does the U.S. really want to ally itself with the fascism of Mussolini, who forced a single dialect upon Italy?  Does Emerson seek to emulate Franco, who banned the teaching of Basque and Catalan in the regions of Spain where those tongues were native?   For the sake of debate, however, let us discount whatever agenda, overt or otherwise, this resolution might have at its root and instead focus on its usefulness.  It is a paradox that on the one hand this legislation, if passed, would almost certainly fail to have any influence on language in the U.S. while on the other hand, even if it were effective, would most likely be completely unnecessary.

Wholly removed from the bias of this proposal is its futility.  Emerson might just as well legislate a new law of gravity for all the good it would do.  Language is not something controlled by governmental fiat.  Laws do not alter the immutable direction language takes and may, ironically, work at cross purposes to their stated goals.

"Since language is the paramount symbol of nationality it is not surprising that an official prohibition to use a language has often been the prime cause of its survival," Pei wrote.

Bill Bryson, in his book "The Mother Tongue," notes that at one time the laws of England called for imprisonment of those who spoke, taught or made signs in Welsh, and yet the language and its speakers persevered.  Then, beginning in the 1960s, the United Kingdom undertook to subsidize Welsh in the form of television broadcasts, educational programs and an "official" language designation.  Nonetheless, Welsh is now in inexorable decline.

A final argument against the Language of Government Act is its sheer superfluity: We don't need it to achieve the aims it purports to champion.  There is nothing to indicate that this country is at the brink of linguistic calamity.  Indeed, all evidence points to the ascendancy of English as the global tongue of commerce, science and government.  (Which isn't to say English is any better or worse suited for the purpose than other languages -- it is merely the benefactor of the aforesaid unalterable arbitrary forces.)

There has been of late an influx of Spanish and Vietnamese speakers into the United States, but nothing much different from the German and Italian speakers who came earlier.  English in this country withstood those incursions as it undoubtedly will withstand current and future waves of immigrants.  Emerson's own arguments ensure it.

The congressman says his proposal is designed to "open doors for (non-English speakers) for jobs, better opportunities, better understanding."  These very things provide strong enough motivation to learn English without bureaucratic regulation.  Emerson, a Republican, should have more faith in the carrot of the marketplace instead of the stick of government intervention.

Bryson cites a 1985 Rand Corporation study that shows more than half of second-generation Mexican immigrants can speak only one language.  That language is English.  Essentially all of the rest, including first-generation Mexican-Americans, are bilingual.

There is one argument in favor of Emerson's proposal.  Anyone who tried to slog through Missouri's epic Proposition B that nosedived to defeat Nov. 5 would have to agree that the legislators in Jefferson City need to abandon whatever language it is they're using and go back to English.