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Why does the United States Lack an Official Language?
Hang on, surely English is the official language?
“If culture was a house, then language was the key to the front door, to all the rooms inside”
~ Khaled Hpsseini, Afghan-born American physician and novelist
Language is perhaps one of the most important parts of any culture, yet in the United States, there is no official language.
Travel to Portugal or to Brazil, the official language is Portuguese. Visit Canada where there are two official languages, French and English. Italian is used in documents in the world’s smallest official county, The Vatican State, although there is no official language.
Over 55 countries across the world have adopted English as their official language.
Yet, a study of the US government website, shows that the United States lacks an official language.
If language is culture, then does the US lack culture? Well, let’s not go that far!
In the United States, English is the language most commonly used and forms the basis of legal documents, business, and day-to-day life. For that reason, most Americans if asked, might claim that English is their official language. Spanish has rapidly become a close second to English, and over 300 different languages are spoken across the states.
There is an argument, that the English spoken in the US, isn’t English at all. Spellings are different, with color vs. colour; and favorite vs. favourite as two well-known examples. In San Francisco, you use the sidewalk, in London the pavement. Moving up in an apartment block in New York is by elevator, whereas in Edinburgh they take the lift up their block of flats.
And no self-respecting Brit would use the word ‘gotten’ under any circumstances.
When you set up some computer software, you will be asked whether you want to use English or American English. Technically, there is no such language as American English, all the software is doing, is offering you different spellings; color rather than colour. The culture of language is brought down to clicking a button to select which version of ‘English’ you want to install.
Perhaps it is for the best that the United States and the United Kingdom’s use of language is moving apart. Differences can provide changes in culture, with each country developing in its own unique way.
“England and America are two countries separated by a common language”.
~ George Bernard Shaw
Similar words have also been quoted by Oscar Wilde. Winston Churchill is often, incorrectly, credited with the quotation.
English-speaking countries’ cultures have moved apart in ways other than a common language. Take the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, where cars drive on the left. In the US, all driving is on the right. Originally, when Europeans first came to America, almost everyone drove their horses and wagons on the left. In 1804, New York became the first state to legislate driving on the right and by the end of the Civil War in 1865, the rest of the country had followed their lead.
When Henry Ford unveiled the Model T in the early 1900s, the driver’s seat was on the left. This meant cars were designed to drive on the right side of the road so that passengers could exit onto the right side sidewalk.
While driving on the right, or left, makes no real difference to the US not having an official language, it does illustrate how countries with a common language develop their own culture.
There are several other countries without an official language, including Australia, Eritrea, and Costa Rica. The United Kingdom, a collection of several countries, has no single no official language. While Wales has Welsh as an official language, England does not claim English, or anything else for that matter, as an official language.
The real reason that the US lacks an official language, is because the Federal government allows people to speak whichever language they want. The right to do that is enshrined in the Constitution, which allows individual states to declare their own official languages. The Founding Fathers chose not to enshrine English as the official language, considering the action would be divisive. Any claim for English as the official language for the whole country would violate the equal protection provision of the 14th Amendment. It could also be considered to violate the 1st Amendment to “free speech”.
Nebraska, in 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in Lau vs Nichols, that schools should make provisions for students who had no English, to receive tuition in their native tongue. Many schools in the state have since developed intensive programs to enable students to learn English. Nebraska adopted English as the official language in September 1920.
In 1986, California Proposition 63, was approved declaring the official language of the state as English. Florida followed the trend two years later. In Hawaii, since 1978, Oleo Hawai’i (the native language) and English had both been adopted, making it the only state to have two official languages.
Some 30 US states have adopted English as their official language. Oklahoma was the latest state to declare the language official, in 2010. There are cases of a single county adopting English as their language, with Carroll County in Maryland doing so in 2013.
Alaska is alone with official languages, having formally accepted at least 20 different native languages, in addition to English. That’s culture for you.
The 115th Congress (2017-2018) introduced H.R.997 - English Language Unity Act of 2017 in an attempt to legislate for English as a common language. The Bill moved no further than its introduction on 9 February 2017.
With many, but not all states, choosing their own official languages, maybe we should just quietly forget that the Constitution neither provides nor imposes an official language. English, or otherwise.
Perhaps Oscar Wilde’s quotation should be re-written as, “The states of America, divided by no common language”.
Or would that be culturally incorrect?
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