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That's not what I meant at all

I was about to sit down with a good book, John McWhorter’s What Language Is (of which, more to come) and a wee dram of the vacation bourbon (Old Forester, if you must know; makes an excellent Manhattan), when I was struck with a chill of apprehension.

I wrote earlier today about Joshua Kendall’s new biography of Noah Webster, pointing out that Webster saw his dictionary as establishing a specific American identity through American English. But what, it now looms over me, if that post should be taken as an endorsement by those people seeking to make English our official language? What if they should, God save the mark, cite me?

So let me be plain to them. Give it up, people. Return to your other favorite occupations, removing books from libraries and inserting nonsense into the biology curriculum of the public schools. English does not need your help.




Posted by John McIntyre at 4:37 PM | | Comments (24)


My, what a broad brush you're wielding there! I didn't realize that the official English folks were the very same people who are engaged in "removing books from libraries and inserting nonsense into the biology curriculum of the public schools." Then again, since I don't want any of those three I guess I don't care about whether they are guilty by association.

Guilty by non-association,

I like your last paragraph the best.

Reminds me of that Garrett Morris routine on the News segment of the original Saturday Night Live where he would do English for the Hard of Hearing by shouting into the microphone.

That last paragraph is English for the Hard of Thinking.

I'd rather that we not encourage them to return to the other activities you mention. Libraries and curricula also need no such assistance.

Perhaps they could pick up a new hobby, one fit for the new century? Yarn bombing? Video songs? Parkour, even?

I pass along my favorite bumpersticker, ©by me 2011, by the way:


That's not what I meant at all. That isn't it at all. So what is? This seems to me to be a more difficult area than you present.

Point 1: In my youth (about the time Webster was lexicographing) it was commonplace to assert that the English language (yes, all right, AmE) was one of the key factors which created a nation out of a subcontinent and a mass of multilingual immigrants. The social pressure to acquire English was seen as a major catalyst in producing unity out of diversity (and the degree of unity across a huge area and a vast range of human origin is an astonishing accomplishment which can hardly be overstressed).

Point 2: I understand why there is such instinctive opposition to making English the official language in the US. The motivation is so clearly anti-hispanic. But you might like to consider the British situation, where English is the official language (with varying officialdom also granted to Welsh, Scots Gaelic and Cornish) but where this most certainly does not stop government, national and local, and other official organisations providing services and information in other languages, such as Punjabi, Bengali and Urdu. In Britain, nonetheless, as in America, it is commonly seen as an important contribution to multiracial integration to provide immigrants with competence in English.

Is the British position so wrong? Is it racist? I understand why you should want to oppose a movement for Official English which appears racially motivated, but the unhappiness you express regarding what you had said about Webster does seem to me to indicate some lack of consistency.

I don't mean to presume to say that the British approach to these matters is utterly right or (for heaven's sake) utterly successful, but I remain somewhat dubious not only about the motivation of those in the US who espouse making English the official language, but also the arguments of those who oppose it.

I think, Picky, that I can address the apparent inconsistency. Webster produced cultural artifacts that were widely adopted. The speller and the dictionary were useful to a populace that wanted to be literate. It wasn't necessary to involve government, except in the limited area of copyright law.

In the previous century, the spread and unity of American English was also accomplished by cultural artifacts, most notably newspapers, movies, and television. This is why the children of non-English-speaking immigrants in America almost invariably learn English; they want to participate in the culture.

The move to make English the official language in this country comes, as you mention, from hostility to immigrants by people who fear that traditional white culture is imperiled, and is deplorable on that ground alone. But it is also the case that governmental efforts to protect and foster languages have had only limited success and are generally futile.

Thoughtful stuff.

Incidentally, the last point you make is almost certainly wrong. Speaking from these islands I can affirm that just as government suppression of language can be very effective (although English seems to have survived the efforts of the Normans), government support can be extremely handy. Who knows what condition Irish Gaelic would be in if it were not for the efforts of the Irish government? And the Welsh language, after centuries of oppression, is doing really rather nicely thank you now it's got a bit of governmental oomph behind it.

"The move to make English the official language in this country comes, as you mention, from hostility to immigrants by people who fear that traditional white culture is imperiled, and is deplorable on that ground alone."

I heartily disagree.

My preference for English as an "official" language--and by official I do not mean decided by the legislature and enforced by the police--is merely to create ease of communication between all members of the nation. That doesn't mean people can't be bilingual or trilingual (or more); it doesn't mean our diverse cultures and languages should be quashed out in favor of a bland over-reaching "Americanism." It simply means that we should all be able to communicate about everyday matters in a common language.

If you can't manage to explain to a 911 operator what the nature of your emergency is, then you're putting yourself at an extreme disadvantage, and you have no one to blame but yourself.

And I definitely don't keep company with those who seek to remove books from libraries or insert nonsense into biology curricula. All I’m in favor of is logic, communication, and common courtesy.

Picky, as far as I can make out, English is not de jure the official language even of England, never mind the U.K., nor is any other language. In Wales, Welsh and English have equal status by the Welsh Language Act 1993, whatever that status may be. Welsh, Irish, Scots Gaelic, Scots, and Ulster Scots are recognized as minority languages in the sense of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Whether the last two are a single language or not is something the U.K. abstains from specifying.

In short, English has the same legal position in the U.K. that it has in the U.S.: it is the de facto official language, but many official documents are available in other languages as needed. I think Geoff Pullum nails it here: "Making English the official language of the United States of America is about as urgently called for as making hotdogs the official food at baseball games."

Of course, my 'home-and native land'---Canada--- has officially chosen to recognize the French language, along w/ English, as the dual official 'tongues' of the Dominion.

Diehard Anglophones, even today, rue the day some decades past, when we majority folk of British ancestry (the powers-that-be, as it were) officially codified French as virtually of equal status to the Queen's English, as re/ all official government documents, and the labeling of the panoply of all packaged products sold above the 49th Parallel.

After all, the British did soundly defeat the French forces on the Plains of Abraham, that little skirmish on the heights beyond Quebec City during the latter stages of the Seven Years War. That momentous British victory essentially established the ascendence of British governmental dominance from that day forward in British North America, but more significantly for posterity, New France. (Alas, the French still hung on to the Louisiana Territory for a spell. Sacre bleu!)

What's that old adage......"to the victor go the spoils."?

Considering, historically, the bulk of Canadian Francophones, or French-as-first -language speakers reside in the province of Quebec, w/ significantly smaller pockets of French-Canadians living in Manitoba, and the Maritime provinces (particularly in New Brunswick)----bottom line, clearly ALL the spoils didn't go to the 'victor'.

What many see as more than generous concessions having been made toward French Canada (the historical losers. HA!) over the years has led to an emboldening of an activist, independence-minded Quebecois in recent decades, where on a few occasions thru official national referendums the province of Quebec has almost succeeded in ceding from the Dominion. One referendum to separate from Canada was defeated by merely a miniscule percentage of a singular vote.

The fact that our long-standing, controversial, and most charismatic
former Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, embodied the dual 'ethnic' aspects of our founding nations, w/ a French-Canadian father and a
Scottish-descended mother, in hindsight seemed most critical and fortuitous in establishing Canada's first official bilingualism edict, and her subsequent federally sanctioned "Multiculturalism Policy" (1971).

Yet we Canucks still hold on to several British 'Englishisms'; particularly the "u" in colour, flavour, favour, and such.

The proverbial sentence-ending quizzical "eh?", and the stretched 'ooout' (out) and 'abooot'(about) seem to be home-grown Canadian linguistic affectations, which generally, to the tuned ear, give us, or more precisely, our national identity, away, almost anywhere we travel.

Interestingly, both the late ABC news anchorman Peter Jennings, and former PBS newsman, Robert MacNeil, both staunch Canucks to a fault, over years working in the U.S. still retained remnants of their Canadian 'accents', on air, eh?


P.S.: -----Nice to be back. Perhaps some of the "You Don't Say" regulars may have noticed my absence from these 'pages' over the last three weeks.

Well, I had some necessary surgery (no gory details, thank you) in late July, and have been slowly, but surely recovering, having lost considerable weight, and feeling understandably weak. Not used to this low ebb state, but am thankfully on the mend.

I've still managed to follow the lively back-and-forth of this blog, and continue to appreciate all your input(s), opinions, erudition, and civil tone.

Missed you Picky, and Patricia, particularly...... and of course, you, Prof McI.

Was thinking of you often, Picky, during those recent hellish riots in London (and beyond), hoping you were not directly impacted by the sheer insanity, and wanton criminality. Sounds like you managed to avoid the mayhem.

Welcome back, Alex. Hope you are back in fighting form again soon.

@Sara: There's no need to codify it in law, though. It's obvious enough that English is generally the language used in government services, and anyone who lives here sees that plainly. If you can't speak English and don't make an attempt to learn, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage and danger because of your lack of ability to communicate well - but it's your own choice that's doing it.

In addition, in areas where Spanish (for example) is more likely to be someone's native language, 911 centers often employ Spanish speakers as 911 operators. Not out of bowing to external pressure or something silly like that, but in an attempt to save people's lives.

"If you can't manage to explain to a 911 operator what the nature of your emergency is, then you're putting yourself at an extreme disadvantage, and you have no one to blame but yourself."

Yes, Sarah, certainly. But that is true today, and if English were to be our official language, it would still be true tomorrow. You can't "make" people learn a language. Some have aptitude and youth on their side, and are able to do so sooner or later; others don't, and can't.

That's the history of immigration in this country. All those millions passing through Ellis Island and elsewhere generally picked up enough English to get by - or else they didn't, and got friends and relatives to translate - and their children were fluent in English, and not always bilingual; their grandchildren generally couldn't speak two words of their ancestral tongue. And American culture, whatever it is, survived nicely.

All of this "if they want to live here they ought to speak English, damnit" sentiment always perplexes me. Generation after generation, wave after wave, of immigrants have managed to assimilate without being forced to learn English. They've learned it because it benefits them. And generations of medical personnel and social workers and emergency responders and bus conductors and the like have managed to pick up a few words of languages that come up frequently in their work, and find impromptu translators, and somehow make it work. And America rumbles along.

I know many American ex-pats living all over the world. Some have learned the languages of their new countries. Most have not. They know enough Japanese or Russian or whatever to take the subway and order dinner and say please and thank you. The longer they live abroad the more of the local language they learn. But they manage to be productive members of society while stubbornly clinging to English.

Yes, John Cowan, for some reason I have never understood it is often said that English is not de jure official in the UK, as if the Laws in Wales Act 1535 or the Proceedings in Courts of Justice Act 1730 had never been passed.

In fact it is sometimes alleged that the UK has no official languages at all: at least that myth has been definitively exploded in the specific wording of the Welsh Language Measure 2011.

Indeed each new piece of legislation promoting equal status for the Celtic languages confirms by implication the de jure status of English. The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 says it aims at "securing the status of the Gaelic language as an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect to the English language." And so on.

Further ts have been crossed in the Nationality Acts. And it is worth noting that English is of course an official language of the European Union. I think its officialness is de quite a considerable amount of jure.

Greetings, Alex. Trust you are taking things easy.

As to the riots, as it happens my main home is in rural England nowadays, although through the kindness of others I am able to spend part of the year in London. I was returning home from London the morning after the first night of trouble. It's good to see that now the trouble is over the local communities are closing ranks, busy setting things to rights, and showing and receiving many daily acts of kindness.

And we have found a hero: bereaved father Tariq Jahan calling for calm in Birmingham in words of great nobility. He is worth hearing:

Picky: Concedo. I will cease to propagate this error.


Incidentally, although I have to take the hot dog analogy on trust, having never been to a baseball game, Professor Pullum's comment seems to me absolutely spot on. Strange how useful language differences are to us as tokens when we feel under threat - like skin colour, I suppose. I expect those who are keenest for making English the official US language are akin to those who think the London riots were caused by Jamaican creole.

Indeed, I have never been to a baseball game either, nor even watched the entirety of one on television. I find spectator sports tedious.

John Cowan, baseball's awesome when viewed live at the ballpark. I'm sorry you have chosen to forego one of life's great pleasures. The TV viewing experience pales in comparison.

Play ball!


I also tend to be antipathetic to spectator sports - except cricket, obviously, which is the highest form of human endeavour. And rugby, which is one of the lowest.

The great thing about cricket is that the beer tent is open all day long.

The great thing about Rugby is the New Zealand All Blacks

I've been to more baseball games than I can count. My father took me to see the Dodgers in LA (not Brooklyn) and later on the California Angels. In exchange for the ticket I had to keep score, play by play, which kind of ruined the game for me for life.

Wise words, Tim, although there is no longer a guarantee of your first point: at major games at major stadiums there is often a restriction on bar opening times in a vain attempt to preserve a degree of sobriety into the last session. I imagine that applies, for instance at the current test match against India at the Oval (details of amazing successes for England this season available on application).

Your second point, however, remains an absolute truth.


re rugby - sympatico!

re cricket - more's the pity


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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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