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Language Gestapo

You may have thought that the Queen’s English Society, with its fussy fetishes about usage and its advocacy of a completely unworkable Academy of English, was laughable. And it is, a group of well-meaning but potty peevers whose influence is unlikely ever to spread beyond their own little circle.

You may not have realized that the United States has an equivalent assemblage of loonies who have no meaningful understanding of how language works. But ours are different. Our species, as the linguist Dennis Baron points out at the blog The Web of Language, includes actual elected representatives, and the hobbyhorse that they ride is the compulsion to make English the official language of the United States, putting the entire executive, regulatory, prosecutorial, judicial, and military might of the federal government behind its enforcement.

They are also people who say that government ought to be less intrusive in our lives. Go figure.

It is their feverish anxiety that the English language—which has spread around the world and has become a more universal tongue than Latin ever was, which allows Americans living abroad to make a living teaching it, and which has generated an industry of English as a Second Language instruction in this country for people eager to learn it—that it is endangered. So they conclude that English, like the California condor, must be protected legislatively.

Professor Baron explains, that H.R. 997, introduced by Representative Steve King of Iowa, “requires English for all official government actions, everything from our laws, which are already in English, to anything that the government does that is ‘subject to scrutiny by either the press or the public,’ which seems to cover everything from committee reports, hearings, and press briefings subject to the Freedom of Information Act, to the sexual peccadilloes and personal indiscretions that some members of Congress keep inadvertently exposing to the scrutiny of the press and the public. In fact it covers pretty much everything the government does except spying and the actions of the IRS, though that’s not a problem because no government agency has the capability to spy or audit in any language but English anyway.”

Further, he says, “The English Language Unity Act doesn’t actually ban foreign languages. It would allow Americans to study them, though that’s probably not going to happen in significant numbers any time soon. It would allow government employees to use them—unofficially—to further diplomacy, trade, and tourism, assuming that government employees can speak other languages well enough to do so. It would allow foreign language use when necessary to protect public health and safety and to preserve the rights of victims of crimes or of those accused of crimes (government employees don’t typically use other languages to do any of this—instead they hire private translators to do it for them). And it would allow government employees to use terms of art—technical phrases which may be in other languages—as when Congress adjourns for vacation sine die or representatives like Steve King remind new immigrants to join the one formed out of the many: e pluribus unum.”

It is, of course, no novelty that the House of Representatives busies itself with the introduction of multitudes of fatuous proposals during each session of Congress. One can only hope that Representative King’s eminent colleagues understand two crucial things: English isn’t broken, and it doesn’t need fixing by Congress.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:51 PM | | Comments (5)


I don't rely upon Congress, who can't order their own lunch, to "fix" anything.

Maybe someone can explain to me how this proposed bill would alter things from the current status quo. Is the government currently writing laws in Latin or keeping committee meeting minutes in Esperanto?

I mean, I think it's ludicrous to suggest that English needs protecting, but even if you assume that it does, how would this bill actually, you know, do anything?

It's nothing but lightly disguised nativism (anti-immigrant prejudice).

Not much of a disguise.

I'll have you know, Mr. McIntyre, that in order to post this comment I had to type in a captcha that was not an English word. In fact, it had a suspiciously Hispanic air about it, if you ask me. I have a mind to let Mr. King know about this outrage.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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