The United States Doesn’t Have an Official Language

Daven Hiskey August 29, 2012 12
Today I Found Out the United States doesn’t have an official language.

President Theodore Roosevelt stated in 1907, “We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.”

He wasn’t the first to express this sentiment. All the way back in 1780 it was proposed to the Continental Congress by future President John Adams that English should be made the official language of the budding nation.  This was not a popular notion largely because Americans at the time spoke a variety of languages.  So the idea of picking one of the more popular ones and making it the official language was seen as “undemocratic and a threat to individual liberty”.

While English has come to dominate in the United States, 232 years later it still has not been made the official language for more or less the same reason it wasn’t in 1780.  In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union argues that declaring English as the official language of the United States would violate the First Amendment.

Despite this, efforts to get a national language declared at the federal level seem to pop up every few decades and has particularly been recently spurred by the rise in native Spanish speakers in the United States (up from about 10% to 13% in the last decade). As yet no bill with this tacked on has made it into law with this rider still attached. The primary argument for declaring a national language is outlined above by President Theodore Roosevelt and below by Congressman Steve King, who recently tried to introduce the “English Language Unity Act”:

A common language is the most unifying force known throughout history.  More powerful than race, ethnicity, more powerful than common experiences or even religion…

Typos happen to the best of us, but serously? ;-)

We’ll set aside the fact that declaring an official language would likely have no effect whatsoever on what people spoke in their daily lives (only directly affecting official documents written by the U.S. government’s various offices and branches, which already always include an English edition) and we’ll set aside that second bit of the above statement, which I highly doubt he actually believes (or anyone who’s ever actually even glanced at a history book… or, you know, even just the world news today would be sufficient to refute it).  He was more probably just trying to be ultra-dramatic in such a way as to help polarize people, in fine political form practiced by politicians of every creed the world over. Although, King did once say in reference to putting up a fence between the U.S. and Mexico, “use a livestock fence to keep out human livestock…”  so… hmmmm…

Regardless, the base “unifying force” line of reasoning is generally shot down by linguists and historians such as relatively recently by the Linguistic Society of America which passed a resolution in the late 1980s against “English Only” measures due to being “based on misconceptions about the role of a common language in establishing political unity…”  And, indeed, if language was so unifying, the many prominent native English speakers who helped spur the American Revolution and the many linguistically diverse colonists who banded together in that revolution despite the differences in their native tongues would seemingly have not done so if that were the case.  Here, it was the common base ideology that was important, which is really what unifies a nation or causes strife when these core principles don’t line up within a populace. Of course, people back then tended to commonly speak multiple languages, a practice which is unfortunately no longer common in the United States. So it’s not completely surprising that they didn’t view native language as all that important and that today the “threat” of another language becoming common other than English has been a slightly more prominent issue.

Despite there being no official language at the federal level, to date 28 states have declared English the official language of their local governments, most of which have done so within the last few decades as the “English Only” movement has gained steam.  However, due to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, if those states want to receive federal funds or support, any public entity in the state that receives federal funds must provide all vital documents in every single language that any client of that agency speaks.  President Kennedy had this to say as justification of the above:

Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races [colors, and national origins] contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes or results in racial [color or national origin] discrimination.

In the end, the fact that English isn’t the official language of the United States hasn’t stopped it from becoming the dominant language of the country, with native English speakers comprising about 82% of the population, native Spanish speakers ringing in at number two at about 13%, and various other European and Asian languages comprising the bulk of the balance.  However, despite about 18% of the U.S. population natively speaking a different tongue than English, a full 96% of United States citizens speak English fluently. So barring something catastrophic happening, it seems unlikely in the foreseeable future that English is going anywhere as the de facto language of the United States.

If you liked this article, and the Bonus Facts below, you might also like:

Bonus Facts:

  • The U.S. currently has the fifth largest population of native Spanish speakers in the world behind Colombia, Argentina, Spain, and Mexico.
  • “English” in the United States is technically “American English”, though of course few native speakers of American (or Canadian) English would have any trouble conversing with a native English speaker, despite minor differences in both certain word meanings and spelling between the two. Of course, few outside of linguists tend to make the distinction between American, Canadian, and true English in everyday conversation.  That being said, it would be interesting to see if an “English Only” bill actually passed without referencing “American English” (which they usually don’t), if then it was argued that all official federal documents be written in actual English, with the various alternate spellings of certain words and the like being required. ;-)
  • Some words were actually originally English words that are now considered “Americanisms”, such as “fall” as a synonym to “autumn”.  “Fall”, in this sense, was common in England in the 16th century but has long since fallen out of favor outside of North America.  Another one is “gotten”, being the past participle of “get”.  This was a common word at one time in England, but died out except in parts of North-East England and North America where it’s still somewhat common.
  • Probably the biggest one of these “Americanisms” is the word “soccer” to describe what now is commonly called just “football” outside of the United States. “Soccer” was originally the British slang term for Association Football almost from its inception.  In fact, the sport being referred to as “Soccer” preceded the first recorded instance of it being called by the singular word “Football” by about 18 years.  This shouldn’t be too surprising as there were numerous sports called “X” Football.  Basically, any sport played on foot was considered football, Association Football being just one type.  So calling it “football” then wouldn’t have told the person you were talking to specifically which sport you meant.  Hence, it was called “Association Football” or the slang “Soccer” commonly until its popularity slowly began making it the de facto “football”.  In the last 3-5 decades “soccer” was phased out almost completely in Britain in favor of just calling it by the singular term “football”.  Read more on this here: The Origin of the Word “Soccer”
  • It is estimated that about 2/3 of the world’s native English speakers live in the United States.
  • Not to pick on him (I really know nothing about the man, except about the two bills he’s recently helped introduce and a few awkward quotes from him.  As such, I have no real opinion about him personally, as one can never really judge a politician by such things, particularly those belonging to a party.) But, in 2011, Steve King attempted to introduce a bill that violated the constitution of the United States much more explicitly than the “English Only” bill.  Specifically, he attempted to put an end to “birthright citizenship” in the U.S., meaning just because you were born in the United States would no longer mean that you were necessarily an American citizen; it would depend on your parentage. King stated about the bill, “We need to address anchor babies.  This isn’t what our founding fathers intended.”  Again his second sentence is rife with political rhetoric (Can anyone really say they know what each of a group of unique individuals that lived a few hundred years ago really intended?  And, further, should we even really care what they would have thought in making laws today?  Shouldn’t we base new laws on the data at hand (including history’s lessons that so many politicians ignore or are ignorant of), and sound reasoning and logic, while always forging the laws against the crucible of protecting our core rights and liberties?  Again, I highly doubt this second sentence was anything but a politician practicing his craft.)  In any event, as you might expect, this potential legal change hasn’t yet manifested due to the fact that it violates section 1 of the 14th Amendment, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”  King stated in an interview on CBS that he does not interpret the 14th Amendment as protecting birthright citizenship… even though it’s pretty explicit about it… “All persons born or naturalized in the United States… are citizens of the United States.”  Whether one thinks this is right or wrong (I can see compelling arguments on both sides on this one), I’m not sure how that can be interpreted any other way.
  • While it only has 1,000 native speakers, Hawaiian is one of the official languages of Hawaii (along with English).  Despite the low number of native speakers, Hawaiian has seen quite a resurgence in the last couple decades, today having over 3 times as many people that can speak Hawaiian than in 1993.  This new life for the Hawaiian language has come thanks to various programs by the Hawaii State Legislature with the aim to get more people to learn to speak Hawaiian.
  • The first documented instance of anyone using the phrase “United States of America” came on April 6, 1776 in an anonymously written article in the Virginia Gazette, published in Williamsburg.  This was about two months before Thomas Jefferson used it when penning the Declaration of Independence.  The label for the United States became somewhat official on November 15, 1777 when the Second Continental Congress put in the Articles of Confederation, “The Stile of this Confederacy shall be ‘The United States of America’.”  Despite this, several treaties involving the U.S. wrote it as “The United States of North America” in the early days of the country.
  • Another popular name for the U.S. in its early years was “Columbia”, after Christopher Columbus.  While not commonly used today, this label can be seen in numerous songs and poems from the 18th and 19th centuries.  This is also reflected in such names as “Washington D.C.” (District of Columbia)

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12 Comments »

  1. Mushyrulez September 4, 2012 at 8:07 pm - Reply

    I can imagine it takes a lot more work to churn out federal documents in all languages rather than only in one (or, in Canada, two)… whether that’s a bad thing is another question :P

    • Kevin October 16, 2013 at 2:55 pm - Reply

      The bad thing I can imagine right now is that translation can lose meaning and open to interpretation by someone other than a judge, creating unneeded confusion.

  2. maryann July 1, 2013 at 9:14 am - Reply

    I live in NYC, Queens to be precise. There are over 300 languages and dialects spoken in Queens. Signs are posted in chinese, korean and spanish, but not in english in many cases.
    I think people should have the right to speak their language in their home, however, in public places the language should be english and the signs should be in english.
    We are losing the significance of the United States of AMERICA!

    • Hello September 8, 2013 at 1:07 pm - Reply

      However, USA is mixture of cultures for centuries and many of your states today were bought from other nations (and names of those states remained from original, like Louisiana from French) so by saying ‘we are losing the significance’ sounds a lot like a colonizer. If the things with US has always been ‘We are the best, we are the freedom, we are the democracy’ then let freedom, democracy to be freedom and democracy. ;)

  3. haley September 7, 2013 at 8:22 pm - Reply

    Maryann, “America” is the name of the landmasses that make up the continents of North, Central, and South America, most of which speaks Spanish or French. Therefor, that argument is essentially meaningless.

    And as the article points out the meaning of America is to be a democratic group of people, regardless of the language. It was a very thought out point not appointing an official language.

  4. shane September 30, 2013 at 3:35 pm - Reply

    Actually in 2006 senate passed an amendment declaring English the national language

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey September 30, 2013 at 3:57 pm - Reply

      @Shane: True, but that didn’t actually do what you might think. The bill was extremely watered down and in the end basically set to “preserve and enhance the role of English as the national language of the United States of America” rather than explicitly making it the national or official language. Then, directly after they passed that (literally about a half hour later), they passed another Amendment (4073) that directly contradicted much of what the first said, further watering it down so that the whole thing was extremely pointless.
      .
      Essentially, they were trying to create something that sounded like it was doing something, so that certain parties involved could get votes by saying they fought and voted for something to make English the official language of the U.S., without actually accomplishing that. Because voters don’t actually bother to look into these things most of the time, few would catch them at their half-truth/half-lie. Politics at its best.
      .
      So, still we have no official language, with the government stance now simply to “preserve and enhance the role of English” in the United States, though without actually doing much of anything to accomplish that. ;-)

  5. Sasha February 3, 2014 at 8:35 pm - Reply

    I think this relevant: You made a very common verbiage mistake, choosing to call English “the dominate language of the country.” The proper word choice should be “dominant.”

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey February 3, 2014 at 9:07 pm - Reply

      @Sasha: Thanks for catching that. Fixed!

  6. Steve March 7, 2014 at 2:02 pm - Reply

    The worst thing is that Americans have made pointless alterations to the English language, and then they try to sell it off to the rest of the world as their own. I recently saw an American trying to tell someone the word “realise” should be spelt with a “z”.

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