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Thursday
Apr061995

Is it apropos to make English official?

 

Someday, in this great land of ours, you won’t be able to recite the motto inscribed on The Great Seal of the United States.

No, you won’t be able to say out loud, “E pluribus unum,” because it will be illegal. More and more states are passing laws making English their official language, meaning that this Latin phrase and all other foreign words will be kaput, finis, sayonara, hasta la vista, amigo.

Twenty-one states now have laws of some sort making English the official language. As more enact such laws, people will forget or never realize that this simple, eloquent, deeply moving Latin motto which captures the spirit of our nation so well, translates roughly into, “Two girls for every boy.”

Oops, I’m sorry, that’s the motto for “Surf City,” from the song by Jan and Dean. “E pluribus unum” means “one out of many,” which is important for citizens to remember to remind them of their odds of winning the government-sponsored lottery. 

Supporters of these English-only laws say speaking in one common tongue will unite us as a country and will reduce the cost of the government providing ballots, notices and other documents in multiple languages. But they’re wrong. English-only laws will make us a more divisive and contentious society and create a huge, expensive government bureaucracy.

That’s because if we start enacting laws regulating what language we speak, we’re going to have to start having laws defining what constitutes English and hire government officials to enforce them.

In France, for example, the parliament passed a law restricting the use of English in public life, such as in store names and printed material. Violators can pay fines up to $3,500 for using foreign words where equivalents exist in the official French language.

If we make English official, won’t we have to ban words such as “restaurant” and “cafe,” since they aren’t English, but French? OK, sure, a reasonable person would realize this is silly, but we’re not talking about reasonable people here — we’re talking about the government. 

Besides passing laws weeding out foreign words, lawmakers would likely have to listen to pesky grammarians as they lobby to legislate the way we speak and write. This group could make it illegal, once and for all, to use the word, “ain’t.” They could also pass laws sending people to jail for beginning sentences with conjunctions — “and,” “but” and “or” — which they say constitutes murder of the English language. (And they say this over and over. But maybe they have a point. Or not.)    

Lobby groups such as the Society Haughtily Organized to Restrict Truncated English Now — or SHORTEN (their motto: “We’re against abbreviations and everything they stand for.”) — would hold protests in Washington, D.C., at the FBI and CIA buildings, encouraging that the GOP make acronyms illegal PDQ.

Grammar would become a key issue in future presidential campaigns, as candidates promise to “get tough” on language by creating the English Protection Agency. This new EPA would ensure the official language is not polluted by split infinitives and dangling modifiers.

Soon, court dockets would be jammed with criminal cases of people charged with violating grammar laws and others filing suits challenging the legality of certain rules of usage. The Supreme Court would soon include newspaper copy editors, which would speed the wheels of justice considerably. Currently, justices hear cases and ponder them for months before writing voluminous opinions full of convincing legal arguments. Copy editors are not used to working that way, at least not in my experience working with them as a reporter. They hand down opinions in seconds and in their haste to beat deadline, don’t spend a lot of time explaining their rulings. In the Supreme Court, it would work something like this:

JUSTICE: OK, here’s the opinion: You can’t start a sentence with the word “because.”

LAWYER: Why?

JUSTICE: Because. Next!

People who want to make English official are generally the same ones who speak patriotically of a united America in which the government does not interfere through high taxes or overregulation. But by enacting English as the official language, I fear government would eventually place the heavy yoke of red tape and bureaucracy directly on the backs of Americans, legislating subjects, predicates, nouns, gerunds and the like.

And for Americans, the punishment would be a terrible sentence.

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