LINGUIST List 2.192

Saturday, 4 May 1991

Disc: Language, Law and Ideology

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Geoffrey Nunberg, banned languages: Official English
  2. Frank Anshen, Re: Banned Languages
  3. "Michael Kac", Anshen vs. Seidenberg (Here we go again ...)
  4. Sheldon Harrison, Quebec, Canadian Biculturalism

Message 1: banned languages: Official English

Date: Mon, 29 Apr 1991 17:25:40 PDT
From: Geoffrey Nunberg <>
Subject: banned languages: Official English
Michael Kac writes:"I personally think that the effort to establish an
official language in the U.S. by amending the Constitution is likely to
founder on this very shoal: it's too much in conflict with the presumption
that individual rights are paramount." 

Well, maybe, but there's no electoral evidence for such hopefulness.
Official English measures have been passed in California in 1986 (73
percent of the vote), in Colorado, Florida, and Arizona in 1988 (61, 80,
and 50.5 percent respectively, and most recently in Alabama in 1990 (89
percent). Measures have also been adopted by 17 state legislatures, with
(at last count) 9 more pending. If no amendment to the US Constitution is
passed -- and I don't think one will -- it is because the Democratic
leadership is unlikely to let any of the proposals come out of committee,
and the Republicans don't seem to care enough about the matter to make an
issue of it, particularly when they are assiduously courting Hispanic
voters. But for these favors we might better thank the concerted efforts of
civil-rights and minority-group advocates than the profound solicitude in which
Americans hold their civil liberties, at least where language rights are
concerned. Support for English-only measures may not run particularly deep,
outside of a few communities, but it seems to be very, very broad.
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Message 2: Re: Banned Languages

Date: Tue, 30 Apr 91 11:42:25 EDT
From: Frank Anshen <>
Subject: Re: Banned Languages
With regard to Mari Broman Olson's statement that the recent law passed
by the Puerto Rican Legislature making Spanish the sole official language
was a handy excuse for substandard English education, might an alternative
explanation be that making Spanish the sole official language is a
reasonably natural step in a Commonwealth in which the overwhelming majority
of the citizens are Spanish speakers and only an infitesimal minority are
first language speakers of English?

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Message 3: Anshen vs. Seidenberg (Here we go again ...)

Date: Wed, 1 May 91 19:49:43 -0500
From: "Michael Kac" <>
Subject: Anshen vs. Seidenberg (Here we go again ...)

There has been some discussion on this net about the propensity 
of readers to make inferences about the beliefs and attitudes of 
some of the correspondents that are unjustified and to which the 
correspondents themselves have sometimes objected. Mark 
Seidenberg will no doubt speak for himself but I suspect very 
strongly that Frank Anshen's comments regarding Seidenberg's 
posting in re the language situation in Quebec is a 
case in point. Here's what I take to be the relevant part of 
Seidenberg's message:

>I myself am not very sympathetic about what is going 
>on there with regard to English language and culture. 
>However, the Quebecois have a very different set of 
>attitudes and priorities, and I don't share their history. I 
>would think that most readers of this list, as people who 
>study other languages in other cultures, would be 
>sensitive to the fact that not everybody shares 
>American attitudes about life, liberty and the pursuit of 
>happiness. Many of the comments that have been 
>posted to the list would be seen by the Quebecois as 
>grossly insensitive to their attitudes, history, and 
>culture, and hopelessly America-centric ...

And here's part of what Anshen says in response:

>I am distressed by the general American habit of blaming 
>behavior we don't approve of on cultural differences, often with a 
>disclaimer that we are dealing with difference not inferiority but 
>with a clear implication"what else can you expect from these 

I, for one, can't infer from Seidenberg's comments that he holds a 
'What can you expect from these foreigners?' attitude; indeed, the 
tenor of the comment I've quoted would seem to suggest precisely 
the opposite.

I wonder also if we're not likely, in discussions like this, to fall 
into the trap of supposing that because there are things going on 
in another country of which we may not approve (and which we 
ascribe to differences in political culture) therefore we must be 
condemning the political culture. I, like Seidenberg, am bothered 
by some of the excesses (and I think that's the right word for it) 
of language policy in Quebec, and suspect that he's probably right 
that at least some of what's going on is happening because of some 
specific characteristics of the indigenous political culture. But I am 
also aware that those differences are responsible as well for 
Canada having a national health care system (something I wish we 
had in the U.S.) and for there having been no military conscription 
during a period in which Americans were being drafted for 
combat in Vietnam. So I don't think that one is necessarily passing 
a blanket judgement on a political culture merely because it 
sometimes (perhaps) leads to things one doesn't like.

Michael Kac
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Message 4: Quebec, Canadian Biculturalism

Date: Thu, 2 May 91 09:29:42 WST
From: Sheldon Harrison <>
Subject: Quebec, Canadian Biculturalism
I've watched this Quebec language debate from the sidelines, refraining from
contributing myself because a. I haven't lived in Canada for 20 years, and
b. because , after an initial presentation of the facts, the debate seemed to
me to have descending quickly to the level of ideological mud-slinging.
(While some of the debates on LINGUIST do go on a bit, at least most of them
have academic content.)

Let me first commend John Ruskiller for the breath of fresh air his 
contribution represents. Moral values should indeed be a constant. Many
of my friends and colleagues try to defend, for example,the political 
oppression of the ethnic Indian population in Fiji by the ethnic Fijian 
population (hard to know who the majority is there; they're about 
neck-and-neck) on the grounds that the Fijians were there first and didn't ask 
the Indians to come. The fact remains, loss of political rights is loss of 
political rights.

And, while I'm letting off steam, let me also have a bit of a go at Julie 
Auger for her attempt to introduce the classic Canadian myths (biculturalism
and the 'tossed salad' metaphor of immigrant absorption) into the debate on
language policy in Quebec. First, Canada is not and has never been
bicultural on any but the most superfical of macro levels. Few individuals
in Canada (Pierre Trudeau, the former PM, is an exception) operate 
comfortably in both anglo- and francophone Canadian culture. And, while it is
indeed the case that North American anglo culture has impinged strongly on
Canadian francophone culture for the last two hundred odd years, the converse
has never been the case. Growing up in Toronto in the '50's and '60's, I
knew nothing of French Canadian culture, beyond the fact that hockey players
from Quebec spoke English funny, and I cared just about as much. (I discount
the backs of cereal boxes and the 'flip side' of dollar bills.) Most 
individuals and locations in Canada are monocultural. The political acts of
recent Quebec governments are, I think, an attempt to guarantee that that
culture, within the political boundaries of Quebec, be French Canadian.
(That's something that does in fact unite Canada, a fondness for attempting
to legislate culture. English Canada, in its federal manifestation, tried
to legislate out 'American' culture for years. I assume little has changed
since I left.)

Now, this 'tossed salad' metaphor. I'm not sure when that started. I first
heard it during the mad scramble to locate Canadian culture in the period
surrounding the centenial of Canadian confederation in 1967. I didn't buy it 
then and I don't buy it now. The difference between American policy and 
Canadian policy with regard to immigrant absorption in the last 19th and early
20th centuries was, in my opinion (and I stress that it is just that--opinion), 
that the US had a policy. The results, however, seem to me to have been the 
same. German Canadians feel no more or less German than do German Americans, 

So, all you Americans out there, don't buy all the rubbish English Canadians
throw at you about the uniqueness of Canadian cultural institutions, in
their attempt to prove that you really don't understand what's going on north
of the border (in spite of the evidence of your own eyes and ears). True, 
there was no Canadian Vietnam, but, after all, the Canadian army could never
be quite large enough, could it?

A final question about Quebec. Can anyone enlighten me, directly or through
LINGUIST, regarding what prompted the Quebec government to loosen the
restrictions governing admission to English-medium schools? Did the Ontario
government threaten to restrict admission to French-medium schools in that
province to the offspring of graduates of Ontario French-medium schools?

And I apologize sincerely for myself having contributed to this increasingly
non-academic debate.

Shelly Harrison

[End Linguist List, Vol. 2, No. 192]
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