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Mother Tonguers
English Is Not the National Language

Thirty years ago Quebec banned all languages but French on commercial signs, including “welcome” and “Merry Christmas.” It required French to be the working language of any business with 50 employees or more, which drove 130 corporations out of the province in a few years. It established a language police and gave it power to levy stiff fines and seize lawbreaking evidence. As The New York Times reported in 1984, that would eventually entail “the taping over the English word ‘street’ on signs; the seizure of 10,000 ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’ bags in 1977, and the prosecution of an English hospital last year for not providing a patient the opportunity ‘to die in French.’” The only thing dying a French death, as a result, is French Canadian — a language so stunted that hearing it is like listening to Beethoven set to Muzak. France’s French is molding the same way if that country’s language tyrants continue to imprison Voltaire’s tongue in the same hushed pantheon where they keep his bones.

How lucky we are in comparison. One of the greatest pleasures of living in the English-speaking world is the language itself. It is the richest in the world, the most imitated, the most borrowed, the most sought after. In China and Japan alone, more people are learning English at any given time than there are people in North America. Among the major languages English is also by far the most accepting of foreign words. “No other language has so many words all saying the same thing,” Bill Bryson notes in “The Mother Tongue,” his wonderful history of the language.

American English is the richest of all. That’s no coincidence. Porous borders make for a porous language. Foreign words are to purists the illegal immigrants of language. But if you want to keep your language vital, fun, boundless, foreign words are its essential subversions. The American language has been very good at this. It doesn’t just tolerate foreign influences. It eats them up, no questions asked. It might not have been that way had purists like Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster prevailed. For a man of such inventive common sense, Franklin was an ayatollah when it came to the English language. He wanted it prim and pure like it was the linguistic version of Plymouth Colony. He was willing to simplify — he invented a new spelling scheme that would have eliminated the letters c, w, y and j and introduced six new ones — but never to enrich: “The introducing new words,” he wrote, “where we are already possessed of old ones sufficiently expressive, I confess must be generally wrong, as it tends to change the language.” How wrong Franklin was, and how fortunate we are that in this regard he was completely ignored.

The historian would argue that law, the Constitution, great leadership and a wealth of resources made America what it is (at least until George Bush grabbed a hold of it). No question. But language, too, made it what it is by reflecting its energy on the culture — not just in great literature, but in what lawmakers and presidents wrote and spoke. The American sermon from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to Martin Luther King’s orations to Bill Clinton’s first inaugural is a uniquely American form of language willing reality: Gettysburg was a slaughter of primal hate, but we remember it as a turning point of national hope and reconciliation. Lincoln’s sublime language — 266 words, 10 sentences and two centuries of sea-to-shining-sea influences — did it.

Lack of discipline and a casual attraction to change is the American language’s secret. So is the absence of rule-makers, of academies that decide where commas belong and of laws that set out how and what language should be spoken. The most tyrannical language ayatollahs tend to be limited to English teachers, standardized test writers and, in my industry, whoever puts together the Associated Press Style Book — the single most deadening influence on American journalism. We can always outwit them, and language will always survive them. But when Congress gets into the act, watch out.

Last week, the U.S. Senate voted to make English the national language. Should it become law, the bill would “preserve and enhance the role of English as the national language.” How that’s any less racist that a bill that would “preserve and enhance the role of whiteness as the national race” is beyond me, but then so has been Congress’ entire war on immigrants this year, of which the language thing is just one smelly byproduct. Whether it becomes law isn’t the issue. Congress isn’t about to close America’s borders to “illegals” anymore than it can decide what English is, or how to keep other languages from animating the American scene. But nationalizing the language becomes a means of cultural control, the greenhouse effect on language — its asphyxiation — is only a few cultural fences away. What a loss that would be. American English is just about the freest gift we all share every day, tangibly and exuberantly (if only we took notice). And we’re about to clunk it up in a prison-house of phobias. How French.

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