LINGUIST List 2.216

Sunday, 12 May 1991

Disc: Language, Rights and Law

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , Re: Language and Culture (Part 1)
  2. , Re: Language and Culture (Part 1)
  3. Charles, reponses
  4. connie gergen, Re: What stand should linguists take?
  5. Celso Alvarez, Re: Banned Languages
  6. "STEVE SEEGMILLER", RE: Banned Languages
  7. , Banned Languages

Message 1: Re: Language and Culture (Part 1)

Date: Thu, 09 May 91 13:17:29 EDT
From: <>
Subject: Re: Language and Culture (Part 1)
With regards to Eldridge's message, I (being the non-confrontational
sort that I am) feel I must take issue with some factual statements. First,
although there certainly was an English speaking majority at the time of
independence, the number of non-English speakers in the original colonies
was not insignificant, especially Germans. There were units of the
continental army whose language of command was English and the continental
congress found it wise to issue some of its procedings in German as well as
English. Benjamin Franklin was heard to complain that it was nearly impossible
for an English language printer to make a living in Philadelphia.
 Neither is it so simple that the goal with non-English speakers was to
"expel or exterminate" them, although a good case for that can be made with
respect to Native Americans. However, the treaties with which the Louisiana
treaties and Norther Mexico were acquired by the US had specific clauses
guaranteeing language rights for their residents aNd in fact both law
and custom in both areas recognized French or Spanish for numerous official
functions for a period of, at least, decades.
 A couple of more random comments on Eldridge's message. 1) It is not
clear to me that extensive learning of Russian would have done wonders for
the Eastern European nations' economies, it doesn't seem to have done a
great deal for that of the Soviet Union. 2) I am not certain about the
Basque situation, but my understanding of the language situation in
Catalonia is that it parallels that of Quebec in a number of ways without
generating much heat either among Americans or American linguists. 3) To
argue that forced learning of Russian in Yugoslavia would have helped unite
the country, even if we ignore the widespread repression which would be
necessary to implement such a policy, is not obvious. The forced learning of
English in Ireland did not do a great deal to limit friction between the
Irish and the English.
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Message 2: Re: Language and Culture (Part 1)

Date: Thu, 09 May 91 13:35:29 EDT
From: <>
Subject: Re: Language and Culture (Part 1)
Mari Olsen is correct that the US has no law making English the only
xDofficial language, however neither does it have a law imposed by a
colonial power making it officially bilingual in English and, say,
 I am not particularly in favor of monolingualism (even though I am)
but neither am I in favor laws which attempt to artificially impose
bilingualism. Would anybody seriously propose that the Dominican Republic,
Costa Rica, and Mexico should become officially bilingual in Spanish and
English? They have linguistic demographics roughly the same as Puerto Rico's.
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Message 3: reponses

Date: Thu, 9 May 1991 16:17:00 -0400
From: Charles <HOEQUISTBNR.CA>
Subject: reponses
Bill Eldridge writes:

> ... I'm not sure why their [slaves'] original
> languages did not survive at all in the U.S., since I don't think
> they were banned in speech (?).

There is a claim that a bit did survive, as Gullah. More generally,
given that captives were thrown together from separate language
communities, it was probably rare that enough speakers of a single
language were together in a single place to keep that language going.
All were forced to fall back on some lingua franca or creole.

Michael Kac writes:

>Without knowing a lot about the specifics of the various English-only
>laws that exist around the country, I nonetheless have the impression
> (correct me if I'm wrong) that people are not being fined and/or
> sent to jail for such things as having restaurants with names like
>Caban~a identified by signs visible to passersby on the street, and
>that while English-only laws have led to harrassment of
>non-English speakers in the workplace using their native languages
> such use is not literally prohibited by the laws in question.
>Further, if such people were to find themselves in court, I think
>it likely that someone somewhere would try to make a test case in
> which individual rights -- in particular, First Amendment rights
 -- would loom very large.

> PS Has there yet been a court challenge anywhere
>to English-only legislation?
>I haven't heard of any, but one would think it inevitable.
> Can Geoff or anyone else provide information?

I can only speak regarding Florida's English-only resolution, but
I suspect this is applicable to other states as well. The text
declares English to be the official state language. What this
means is not defined (e.g. no prohibition on other lgs., no mandating
of English in particular situations), nor is there any enforcement
methodology (not surprising, since there's nothing to enforce),
nor are any penalties prescribed, since there's nothing to violate.

My guess is that other states have done about the same thing, because
(as MK notes) any genuine attempt to mandate English will violate
the First Amendment, as well as colliding with existing federal
regulations requiring Spanish-English signs in some situations.
This would account for the lack of court challenges: there's nothing
to challenge.

Thus, politicians can say to their english-only consituents, look,
we passed this here LAW! (probably such constituents are not real
rocket scientists themselves, and will be happy) and to everyone
else, look, we haven't done anything to anyone, it's harmless.
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Message 4: Re: What stand should linguists take?

Date: Thu, 09 May 91 15:26 PDT
Subject: Re: What stand should linguists take?
The issue of "minority"-oriented language legislation reminds me in one sense
of South African language policy and the Afrikaaner goverment's attempts to
impose their will on a majority population. While the balance of power may
be different in Quebec (i.e. the minority is politically marginalized) than
in South Africa (where the minority enjoys full power), linguistic hegemony
seems common to both situations. I don't support either situation and find
it ironic that those opposed to English only in the U.S. can support attempts
to make Quebec "French-only" in Canada.
Constance Gergen, Department of Linguistics, University of Southern California
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Message 5: Re: Banned Languages

Date: Fri, 10 May 91 00:56:59 PDT
From: Celso Alvarez <>
Subject: Re: Banned Languages
I haven't been following the thread on "banned" languages from the
beginning, but it appears to me that something is missing.
Most contributors seem to suggest that it is the intention of multilingual
states to effectively ban the use of minoritized languages. I just
want to point out that, while language legislation and policies work at
the ideological level to promote or undermine feelings of nationhood,
it is the actual preservation of the language in restricted social
domains which renders such policies meaningful or effective for
maintaining social boundaries. As an example, the "ban" on Basque,
Galician, or Catalan in Spain was accompanied by an implicit policy
not to interfere too much in, for instance, language use in family life.
Minority "idiomas" were supposed to be the remnants of a "folkloric"
way of life, together with other customs such as music or food. In this
way, the political and economic elites could control upward mobility by
selectively recruiting those individuals who had disidentified
sufficiently from their native background so as to have abandoned their
linguistic allegiances by speaking Spanish exclusively in public life.

Now, francophone language policies in Quebec point in a similar
direction, don't they?: constructing the selfness in opposition to the
otherness. The francophone elites need the anglophones as the "historical
enemy" necessary for the articulation of nationalist discourse.

That is, if language-in-use is such a visible marker of identity, what
could be more effective than the minoritization (not total eradication)
of the "other's" language? Social stereotyping and control, of course,
are similarly based on accent. But, could political and economic elites
in monolingual states articulate discursively this differentiality by
legislating, for instance, "Accents such and such are banned in public
life"? Instead, the political power in monolingual states is left with
the most unsophisticated piece of democratic machinery: the ideology of
equality and "equal opportunities", expressed, among other things, in the
supposed equal access to the standard.

Celso Alvarez (
Dept. of Spanish and Portuguese
University of California, Berkeley, 94720, USA
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Message 6: RE: Banned Languages

Date: 9 May 91 12:36:00 EST
Subject: RE: Banned Languages
 Another note on banned languages: I don't know what the present
situation in Mexico is, but when I was there more than 20 years ago, I was
told that all native (i.e. Indian) languages were banned from print and from
the school system. The only published material I ever saw in Mayan, during
four months in Yucatan, was a set of three readers intended for primary
schools; after the children learned Spanish (by the first or second grade,
presumably) all books and instruction were in Spanish. However, I observed
no attempts to prohibit or limit any speech in Mayan.

Steve Seegmiller
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Message 7: Banned Languages

Date: Sun, 12 May 91 17:08:18 EDT
From: <>
Subject: Banned Languages
(1) I would submit that, while there are many unclear situations,
it IS clear that no political entity should forbid the use of
a particular language and that linguists should oppose any such
legislation. It is perhaps less clear, but rather clear, that, in
situations where more than one language is usable, people should
be allowed to choose freely rather than having to prove suitable
ancestry or whatever it is. Thus, while it is debatable whether
Quebec is morally obliged to provide English-language public schools
at all, once it does, it should be up to the individual to select
the language of instruction. Likewise, Quebec could perhaps
be morally justified in REQUIRING that all public signs be AT LEAST
in French, but I can see no justification for banning signs in
other languages.

(2) I don't believe anyone has mentioned the fact that at least
one American state banned the teaching of foreign languages in
the schools between the world wars. I don't have the details,
but I would like any contributions on this.

[End Linguist List, Vol. 2, No. 216]
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