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Guest Editorial by Tommy Hummel

Whose Official Language?

“Speak English! This is America.” And so is Mexico, and Brazil, and Canada. They are all part of North America. We are the United States, and we are of America. And we are comprised of immigrants from many nations, many of whom did not speak English as their first language, and the only natives to this land certainly did not speak English either.

To anyone who is actually willing to study the issue, consider this: in all of language history, languages have not ever been able to change because of a government mandate. In World War II, Mussolini banned the use of the second-person plural distinction. As a result, people used it more. And today, despite the extreme efforts of a Fascist dictator, Italian retains the tu/vous distinction. During the Norman Conquest, French was the primary language, the language of the upper classes, but English continued to be used by everyone else, despite the insistence that French was the standard language, and English was considered a poor-man’s language. If we promote an English-only nation, the result will be that people will cling to their languages even more.

Will the English language change as a result of all of these blendings of languages? Of course. It will do so whether a law is in place or not. Language change is not only natural, it’s inevitable. In fact, the English language owes over eighty percent of its lexicon and grammar to the blending and merging of other languages.

So rather than support such a doctrine, I’d prefer to support the open exchange of ideas, languages, customs, and cultures. Such exchange is a remedy for ignorance and intolerance.


  1. Actually, English is the only “living” language, in that it absorbs the language of all cultures into it’s own, and is ever changing and adapting. That’s the beauty of English – however, that also makes it a fairly difficult one as well.

    (There are those that will dispute that their native language is indeed a “living” one, but what separates them from English is the adaptation of world vernacular into a lanaguage that can bring those words into it’s own lexicon – 80% sounds a little conservative to me…) Because it’s able to adapt and absorb worldy languages, (even some words from now dead languages), English gets my vote as an official language.

  2. Victoria Fromkin, Ph.D., Professor of the Department of Linguistics at UCLA until 2000, Robert Rodman, Ph.D. in linguistics, and Nina Hyams, Ph.D., current professor of linguistics at UCLA in their book, An Introduction to Language (7th Ed.), define living and dead languages as such: “the language is said to be dead when the last generation of speakers dies out (525).” They add that, “All living languages change with time” (499). Additionally, “Many [languages] are avid borrowers…Albanian has borrowed so heavily that few native words are retained” (512). And others borrow from English. Swahili has adapted the English word for “police,” and Japanese has borrowed “elevator” and “baseball” (Bonvillain, Language Culture and Communication: The meaning of Messages, 4th Ed. 340). Also, countless languages have borrowed many of the computer terms that originated in English, including e-mail, and even the word computer (German: der Computer). And, of course English, “has borrowed extensively. Of the 20,000 or so words in common use, about three-fifths are borrowed” (Fromkin, et. al 512).

    Borrowings are not the only ways in which a language changes, though. “An examination of the past 1,500 years of English shows changes in the lexicon [or words] as well as to the phonological [sounds], morphological [such as prefixes, suffixes, prepositions], syntactic [sentence structure], and semantic [meaning] components of the grammar. No part of the grammar remains the same over the course of history…the histories of all languages show similar changes” (501).

  3. I don’t know if you’re agreeing or disagreeing, so I’ll put it another way … languages have survived without governments, and if someone wants to use “government” as a crutch that “all” languages survive or die, that’s poppycock. I’m not going to learn 15 different languages so that I can speak with my neighbors, but if you move here from another country then you better damn well learn English. (Just as I would have to learn a native language if I moved to another country). Or, as an aside, I would learn their language as secondary to my English.

    Lingua Franca – Norman French hybrid language (Italian, Spanish, German, Latin, etc.) English is considered to be the first global lingua franca. I have no use for PhD pedantry that can otherwise be proved by the history of formulated usage. “Living language” is used as a metaphor for something still in use and continually changing. Something evolves from nothing but a quick fix for words stemming from a group of certain cultures in order to communicate. English has metamorphed its phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, and intonation theories into one that is a rapidly rising global standard. David Crystal (Patron of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) and David Graddol are (knighted British) pioneers in sociolinguistics regarding this global change. (In case the folks over at UCLA forgot where modern English came from – it’s from the Brits and Old English). 83% of English vocabulary is Germanic in origin. (Brought by the Romans who swept through NW Germany, which also encompassed Norman French and Spain and also encompassing their native Latin) – (A Grammar of Proto-Germanic – Jonathan Slocum and Winfred P. Lehmann.) That being said, the rest of the percentages are made up of French, Latin, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Greek, and a small percentage that is of unknown origin (Origins of English Language – Joseph Williams). (Police is a French origin word, yacht is a Danish word, computer (der Komputor) is a German word).

    (Native languages of Britain before the Romans arrived, I’ll save for another story.)

    Pidgin Language – language created under stressful times that evolve over time (Creole, for instance, or your Mussolini anecdote). The unknown percentage of the evolution of modern English can be explained as words created from a pidgin language. Slaves often developed their own language. (Monolingualism of the Other – Jacques Derrida).

    Latin, (from Latium along the Tiber River), is considered by many a dead language. However, it is still in use in the Roman Catholic Church, but nowhere else. Either way, it hasn’t evolved – (wordsmithing here) – not a living language. Sanskrit is a precursor of Greek and Latin and Avestan (Zoroastrian) is an early relative of Persian (Sir William Jones). Both of these languages gave Greek and Latin words, but not structure, according to modern philology. Neither are used in their original forms, (although studied purely for their linguistic historical importance), and are considered dead languages. (By your PhD arguments, studying a language is keeping it alive, as the people who study it also speak it.) When English evolved from the above statements, the English language gave structure to these words – and the structure has changed since it’s humble beginnings. (The Indo-European Dialects – Antoine Meillet). (The Discovery of Language – Holgar Pederson).

    So, with all that said, it looks like to me that borrowings are the ONLY way a language changes, and thus, survives.

    My great-grandparents did not speak a lick of English when they arrived here. But, they did instill in their children that German was not to be spoken at home, only English, in order to communicate and live in this New Country. I’m sick and tired of not being able to communicate with the amalgam of Spanish speakers at my school because they REFUSE to speak English.

    No one is stating that native languages be lost, rather, English should be the one everyone speaks IN ADDITION TO their native language, whatever that may be.

    Also, last time I checked, our Constitution was written in English, not a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

  4. I forgot to add my blurb about one of your quote sources. Critics of (the late) Dr. Fromkin and her book (now in 8th edition) have discussed the possibility of experimenter bias during the collection of the thousands of speech errors. The speech errors were collected by observation which could indeed lead to experimenter bias or human error.

    Many different scholars have contributed research to the field of modularity. Some support the view that language processing is modular (Brain and Behavioral Sciences – J. J. Bryson), while others support the view that language processing is not modular (PDP Models and General Issues in Cognitive Science – D. E. Rumelhart, & J. L. McClelland), The research of Dr. Fromkin helped support the hypothesis that language is modular.

    However, many scholars have argued (including those mentioned above) that even though speech errors do occur people are still able to understand one another. This indicates that language is not modular.

    (I admire a pioneer in any field of study, especially when communication is involved. However, when the underbrush is cut away to reveal an unknown path, the hedges still have to be cut and trimmed in order to have a decent view of that path.)

    (Apparently it’s an on-going debate between psycho- and neuro-linguistics that won’t be solved in Ben’s blog. :)

    Perhaps you should look into Hyams (big fan) work in pragmatic development of the English language. Consequences and real life effects, meaning any situation in every single day, (not just anything having to do with government or one thing in particular), affect a person’s language. To me that also states a non-modular approach to an ever changing and adapting language that people seem to understand on the fly, as it were. No other langauge but English has shown to accomplish this.

    I've had years to study it, though no degree to show for it – Obviously, a piece of paper is something you hold in high regard. But, I am glad I actually have someone to discuss the topic with. :)

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