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The Latest Attack of the Anglophones : Language: The move to establish English as America's official tongue ignores a central fact. The protection of English is its lack of protection.

September 12, 1993|Stephen Games | Stephen Games, a former documentary-maker for the BBC, writes about U.S. affairs for the London Sunday Telegraph

Should America adopt English as its official language? In 1986, Californians voted to make English the official language of their state, and now campaigners including Saul Bellow, Alistair Cooke and Arnold Schwarzenegger are trying to do the same at the national level. They want federal privileges for Anglophones.

The Constitution prohibits the establishment of a religion but says nothing about the establishment of a language. "I don't think anyone knows what the effect of an (English-only) amendment would be," says Kenneth L. Karst, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, "except that it would be gratuitously insulting to a large number of people. Imagine imposing English in Hawaii."

English isn't even the official language in England. Should it be? Ken Donovan, education officer at the National Union of Teachers in Wales, laughed when asked, because Wales is wondering whether to adopt Welsh at its official language, and the debate hasn't yet crossed the border. The official language of Wales is English, imposed by statute in 1536, when England annexed it.

England itself doesn't have an official language--English or otherwise--because it never got annexed, never had to compose its own identity. In fact, England has never thought of English as a formal institution in the way that France thinks of French--"the world's most glorious language," as President Francois Mitterrand put it a year ago. English English is a token of exchange, a day-to-day currency reflecting demand and use. The same is true of English in the United States.

The protection of English is its lack of protection. There are now a billion English speakers, of whom two-thirds were not born to it. It exists in dialect form all over the globe, nuanced and inflected by other tongues. In the April edition of English Today, Rajend Mesthrie wrote about the distinctions between South African English and South African Indian English, a pidgin form carried to Natal by hundreds of thousands of Indian laborers between 1860-1911 and then frozen by apartheid. Tom McArthur reminded readers in the July edition that at some point during World War II, English in the Netherlands ceased to be a foreign language as such and became a regular Dutch language, alongside Frisian.

English doesn't need enforcement. Market conditions ensure that it is adopted by millions of their own free will. "There's a big impetus in the American Latino community to learn English," says Karst, who also has written on citizenship. "It's called money. The third generation will speak English very well. The fourth may not speak Spanish at all."

The concern about English is not its weakness but its strength. When Mitterrand's predecessor, Georges Pompidou, legislated in the 1970s against English infiltration-- le weekend , le sandwich --he was trying to stem a natural force. In Quebec, the assertion of French language rights, plus a revolution in French classroom education, has restored Francophone Canadians' sense of self-worth, wiping out their fears of being overwhelmed and disregarded. Block mobility as it affects French speakers is no longer an issue.

"The paradox," says Pierre-Etienne Laporte, president of the French Language Council and an adviser on French language policy to the Canadian government, "is why, if there is no more discrimination against the French, do we have a political problem in Quebec? I think we have been moving to a politics of identity. People are now not asking so much for justice as for recognition. If you give recognition to one group, other groups feel they're losing out."

The difference between Latino Americans and French Canadians is territory. "Bilingualism in Canada is stable, in the United States, it's transitory. That makes the likelihood of ethnic tension in the United States much smaller. For a separatist movement to develop, it needs a group with a strong sense of territorial identification and frustration. The Latinos don't have that. On the contrary, Miami is now being run by second-generation Cubans who are bilingual and fully Americanized." Success is never a threat.

Except to detached members of dominant groups living inside subdominant groups. The Yugoslavian tragedy is not just that of dominant Serbs and subdominant Croats and Albanians, but of Serbs living under Croats living under Serbs; and Serbs living under Albanians living under Serbs.

Where there's a will toward positive relations, however, multilingualism keeps everyone happy. In parts of northern Italy, Italian comes second to Slovenian, German, French, Friulian and Ladin. Switzerland has four national languages. In France, protected status is given to Breton, Basque, Catalan, Occitan, Corsican, Alsatian and Flemish. Even in Belgium, the regular outbreaks of petulance between the Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons are widely regarded as ritualistic. Stags in the rutting season are more frightening.

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