English is not the official language of the United States, because the United States has no official language.
English is the official language (or one of the official languages) of about 75% of the states, and of Puerto Rico. Rassmussen Reports found in a survey taken earlier this year that 73% of respondents thought English should be the national language. If the United States had a national language, it would probably be English.
But we do not have a national language.
The 10th Amendment
First, how can it be that most of the states have English as their official language, but the nation as a whole does not? That’s easy: the 10th Amendment to the Constitution says that anything the U.S. Constitution doesn’t talk about is left up to the states. Since the U.S. Constitution has nothing to say about an official language, states get to make their own decisions on that question.
Robert A Stribley recently wrote about this topic, and reminded us that “In 2012, Rick Santorum insisted that Puerto Rico should adopt English as its official language as a condition for statehood. An odd demand, considering the United States itself has never made English its official national language.”
An especially odd demand since English already is an official language of Puerto Rico, along with Spanish.
But no language is specified in the U.S. Constitution, and we have never had an official national language.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been attempts to make that happen. For example, in 2019 a Republican from Iowa introduced a bill “To declare English as the official language of the United States, to establish a uniform English language rule for naturalization, and to avoid misconstructions of the English language texts of the laws of the United States, pursuant to Congress’ powers to provide for the general welfare of the United States and to establish a uniform rule of naturalization under article I, section 8, of the Constitution.”
Here’s Article I, Section 8:
- Clause 1
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
It seems to be mostly about taxes, but we won’t argue that Congress should not work toward the general Welfare of the United States.
The findings for the bill — that is, the facts supporting it — are these:
The Congress finds and declares the following:
In other words, states get to declare their own official language(s). The bill goes on to state that English should become the official language of the U.S. and that there should be an English language fluency requirement for immigrants to become citizens. This bill had 27 cosponsors, all Republicans, but it died in committee.
There is an urban legend that Congress voted on whether to declare German or English the national language of the United States in 1795. That is not true. There was no such vote, though there was a petition from German-speaking Americans asking that laws be translated into German for them. There is no record of the vote on that issue, but many things in the United States, from street signs to ballots, are translated by law into widely-spoken languages other than English.
There have been many more discussions and votes in Congress on this topic through the centuries.
In 2006, Rep. Woolsey argued against English as an official national language, saying,”We already know…that English is not under attack, that it is overwhelmingly the language of our government; that immigrants want to learn English; and that instead of promoting unnecessary divisive policies, we ought to simply help immigrants to learn English, because we will hear in a few minutes, according to the most recent census, that 92 percent of our population speaks English.”
He went on to say, “In the case of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack or a health crisis, it is critical that government be able to communicate quickly and effectively with the entire public. For example, if there is a pandemic flu and non-English speakers cannot understand the government’s instructions, everyone will be at risk.”
In the same discussion, Mauro Mujica, the head of an English-only organization, took a different position, saying, “But we have also been negligent in our promotion of English as the unifying language of our nation. We have never been, and no serious person is suggesting that we become an English-only nation. But the American people decidedly do not want us to become an English-optional nation.”
This patriotic feeling that English unifies the nation is the usual argument given for English as a national language, but in the same Congressional debate, John Trasvina, Interim President and General Counsel, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, pointed out that this argument sometimes covers up the truth. “In the late 1910’s, amidst nationwide anti-German sentiment fueled by World War I, several states passed English-only laws that sought to restrict the use of foreign languages in public. The most famous example was a 1918 edict by Governor William Harding of Iowa, which became known as the Babel Proclamation, and outlawed the use of foreign languages in all schools, all public addresses, all conversation in public places, on trains, and over the telephone…Although proponents of anti-German laws of that time portrayed them as efforts to have “a united people, united in ideals, language and patriotism, these efforts had unmistakably xenophobic roots.”
The Founding Fathers
It is easier to see the xenophobic roots of people in the past. But the truth is, the earliest citizens of the Unites States of America spoke many different languages: European languages, African languages, indigenous languages, and Middle Eastern languages.
The Englishmen who wrote the Declaration of Independence were aware that their fellow American spoke other languages, and they could have chosen to declare a national language. They didn’t.
One, Benjamin Franklin, wrote about his concerns that German, the second most popular language in the states at the time, might overtake English. Yet he was instrumental in establishing the first German-language college in the U.S., Franklin & Marshall College, in 1787. It is clear that the framers of the Constitution did not choose an official national language because they valued the diversity of their multilingual nation.
So should we.