THE NOT SO UNITED STATE OF “AMERICAN ENGLISH”
Nations no longer have a linguistic identity. And that’s okay.
In an era of migration and high-speed information transfer, the idea of a nation holding tightly onto
a single language as that of the State has run into considerable resistance. On the face of it, the issue
appears clear-cut: in order to function, government needs to be able to understand itself, and thus,
on the basis that none of us are omnilingual, we should pick one language and stick to it for official
documents and discourse. In the USA, a debate is on-going about the undefined status of English,
particularly in “competition” with Spanish, which is spoken by about 37 million people across the
There’s probably a good chance, if you’re not from the US, that you had no idea this supposed
conflict even existed. But the basics of it are real; the USA has never declared an official language on
a nationwide level. And the result? Political pandemonium? An awful breakdown of communication?
Well, no. Not really. There’s no ambiguity in the USA’s federal procedures or documentation. The
2012 election campaign has been fought and filed in English. Some individual states list English as an
official state language, and many others don’t.
So the dilemma here isn’t political – it’s social. When two languages compete in a region, it’s called
diglossia, and it can create tensions between communities. Occasionally, for example, it’s necessary
to translate English to Spanish or to offer an automated choice when you reach a telephone number.
Education becomes tricky, too, as a combination of English- and Spanish-speaking teachers and
students try to find a way to communicate and learn in a respectful way.
The thing worth noting, though, is that declaring an official language doesn’t fix any of these
complexities. It is a fact of the modern world that people in practically every developed corner of the
globe speak all manner of dialects. They’ll continue to, whether you bully their lexicon into the
ground or not. And, indeed, most case studies serve as evidence that suppressing a language only
makes it more robust to change and more valuable to a sub-culture. Nations no longer have a
linguistic identity. And that’s fine.
So English might not be the official language of the USA, but it’s certainly unofficially official. While
we continue – as a race, really – to broaden our linguistic horizons, both online and offline, does it
really help to be so fearful of the way another person communicates? Our language is a huge part of
our identity; to officially declare 37 million people’s mother tongue “secondary” is surely in nobody’s
interests whatsoever. If you don’t understand, use a translator – it doesn’t even have to be a
professional translation. We don’t live in the Dark Ages any more; there’s no need to defend what
isn’t in danger.