LINGUIST List 6.609

Tue 25 Apr 1995

FYI: German as official language of the US

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  1. Richard M. Alderson III, Re: 6.539 on Official Language
  2. Tom McClive, Official language
  3. "Carsten Quell", Re: 6.539 Qs: Official lg (USA: German?)

Message 1: Re: 6.539 on Official Language

Date: Tue, 11 Apr 1995 17:36:55 Re: 6.539 on Official Language
From: Richard M. Alderson III <>
Subject: Re: 6.539 on Official Language

I'm sure many people will send a copy of this, but just in case they all
hesitate, thinking that someone surely will, here's what the Frequently Asked
Questions periodic posting to the Usenet newsgroup sci.lang has to say:

 "German lost out to English as the US's official language by 1 vote."

 This entertaining story is also told of Greek, Latin, and even Hebrew.

 There was never any such vote. Dennis Baron, in THE ENGLISH ONLY QUESTION
 (1990), thinks the legend may have originated with a 1795 vote concerning
 a proposal to publish federal laws in German as well as English. At one
 point a motion to table discussion (rather than referring the matter back
 to committee) was defeated 41-40. The proposal was eventually defeated.

I have from time to time seen a much longer precis of the discussion from
Baron's book, but was unable to locate it on short notice.

Rich Alderson
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Message 2: Official language

Date: Wed, 12 Apr 1995 12:05:38 Official language
From: Tom McClive <>
Subject: Official language

) The subject matter was an alledged poll or ballot in the USA by the
) end of the last century. This person claims that there has been
) a poll concerning the official lg of the USA, and that in this poll
) (or Congress vote, he wasn't sure), English won over German by
) a few votes. My merory, though dim, tells me that this is a rumour
) created by Nazi propaganda in the Third Reich which has no
) relation to reality whatsoever, and that the US does not have an
) official lg (although there are attempts in some states to lodge
) such legislation). Am I right, and if so, are there books or
) articles available that document this Nazi propaganda trick?

The story I've heard here in the usa is that back when the continental
congress was meeting after the revolutionary war they had a vote on
declaring an official language or not. Since everyone was mad at England
at that point, some people wanted to replace English and switch to German.

This story has been proved false, of course, but was helped along by the
fact that German speakers were a sizeable minority in the states at that
time. I never heard that the Nazis made use of that story, but if they
did they probably heard it in one of its convoluted forms and filled in
some missing details.

It's true that the usa today has no official national langauge, but many
states have declared an official language. During the 1980s, many states
put a "Should we make English the official language?" on the ballot
during election time. Almost all of them passed. I don't know quite how
this has effected anything, but I believe that a majority of the states
has done this. A group called "US English" is the largest voice today
for a national language, their ultimate goal is an amendment to the
constitution declaring that the national lang is English. Their
literature is pure propoganda, and often factually incorrect, but is very
interesting to read.

 Tom McClive
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Message 3: Re: 6.539 Qs: Official lg (USA: German?)

Date: Wed, 12 Apr 1995 22:53:03 Re: 6.539 Qs: Official lg (USA: German?)
From: "Carsten Quell" <>
Subject: Re: 6.539 Qs: Official lg (USA: German?)

Hello Linguists,

Regarding a recent query on the apparent myth that German nearly became
the official language of the USA, I found the following reference in David
Crystal's (1987) _The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language_ (p.365):

 A planning myth

 Probably the best-known myth in the history of language planning is the
 story that German nearly became the national language of the U.S. in the
 18th century, losing to English by only one vote in the legislature (the
 'Muhlenberg' legend). In fact, all that was involved was a request,
 made by a group of Virginia Germans, to have certain laws issued in
 German *as well as* in English. The proposal was rejected by one vote,
 apparently cast by a German-speaking Lutheran clergyman, Frederick
 Muhlenberg (1750-1801). But the general status of English as the major
 language was never in doubt. (After S.B. Heath & F. Mandabach, 1983.)

And this is the original reference:

Heath, S.B. & Mandabach, F. (1983): "Language status decisions and the law in
the United States" In: J. Cobarrubias & J.A. Fishman (eds), "Progress in
language planning: international perspectives" (Berlin, Mouton), 87-105

Unfortunately Crystal does not say which legislature he means and I haven't
had time to check the reference he gives. Maybe someone else knows more.
But I can only agree that this story is purported as fact by Germans,
especially elder ones, on many occasions. When and how it was spread I would
be curious to find out.

Hope this helps.

** Carsten Quell **
** Brettnacher Str. 19a **
** D-14167 Berlin, Germany **
** phone/fax:++49-30-8112932 **
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