Puerto Rico: The Language Question

Quick — what’s the national language of the United States?  It’s a trick question.  There is no national language in the United States.  This is not an oversight.  It is a decision made more than once by the Congress.  The United States is a multicultural nation where many languages are spoken, and our government has no intention of changing that.

A number of States have declared English their official language (English is also one of the official languages of Puerto Rico), but this just proves the point.  The federal government doesn’t make decisions about language for the states.  The 10th Amendment to the Constitution says that States get to make this decision.

The way states declare their languages is not consistent.  Illinois simply says that “English is the official language of the state of Illinois,” just as Illinois and other states have official state pies, state fossils, state musical instruments, or state neckwear.

Georgia, on the other hand, starts its law with, “The English language is designated as the official language of the State of Georgia.  The official language shall be the language used for each public record, as defined in Code Section 50-18-70, and each public meeting, as defined in Code Section 50-14-1, and for official Acts of the State of Georgia, including those governmental documents, records, meetings, actions, or policies which are enforceable with the full weight and authority of the State of Georgia.”  It continues, as do many other states, with a long list of exemptions, from schools to festivals and marketing efforts.

And there are states that have other official languages, including Alaska, where English is the official language along with 20 other languages spoken in the state.  Hawaii has two official languages: English and Hawaiian.

None of this is up to the federal government; language use is under the control of the States.

Both English and Spanish are official languages of Puerto Rico.  But Congress is allowed to make rules for territories that it cannot legally make for States.

Since Puerto Rico is a territory, Congress could pass a law saying that Puerto Rico’s schools must teach only English, or that court cases in Puerto Rico must be conducted only in English.  As a State, Puerto Rico’s languages will be protected by the Constitution, because the Constitution will apply fully to the State of Puerto Rico.

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