LINGUIST List 6.644

Fri 05 May 1995

Sum: Official_Language

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. A. Stenzel, Official_Language

Message 1: Official_Language

Date: Wed, 3 May 1995 11:52:53 +Official_Language
From: A. Stenzel <>
Subject: Official_Language


about one month ago, I posted the following query (text slightly

 The subject matter was an alledged poll or ballot in the USA
 by the end of the last century. A friend claimed 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 memory, 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?

A number of people answered, some of them just asking to be
informed, as they were interested in this topic as well, others
providing helpful information. The following people reacted to my

Gregory Ward (, Hartmut Haberland
(, Marlene Abrams Miller <ABRAMSUCSFVM.UCSF.EDU>,
Dr. Christian K. Nelson (, Heinz Kreutz
(, Jakob Dempsey
(, Ralf Groaerhode <Afrikanistik2uni-, Lindsay J. Whaley (Lindsay.J.WhaleyDartmouth.EDU>,
Peter Patrikis (, David
Ganelin (, Dennis Baron <>,
Wayne O'Neil (waoneilMIT.EDU),, Anthea
Fallen-Bailey (, Stephen Huffman
(, Anton Sherwood <>,
Elsa Lattey (, Kevin Varden
(, Steven Schaufele
(, Deumert, A, Ana, Ms"
(, Deborah Yeager <>

The following persons posted answers to the list (Vol-6-609.):
Richard M. Alderson III (
Tom McClive (
Carsten Quell" (

The general line of all replies was that (i) I wasn't the only
person who had ever encountered that story, and (ii) that it is a
legend that contains, as legends do, a kernel of truth.

The first point to note is that the United States never have
adopted an official language, but some states have. David Ganelin
writes that
 at least 19 states do have English as the official language,
 though what this means at a practical level varies state-to-
 state. Supposedly, a majority of Americans polled would
 support the adoption of English as the official national
 language, but I don't have supporting material for that.

But the story dates back to the times of the Continental Congress,
and sometimes is passsed on in North America in a fashion similar
to that described by Marlene Abrams Miller:

 I don't have any accurate information for you, and what
 follows may be American folklore. I dimly recall being told
 somewhere along the way in school, perhaps in junior or senior
 high school American history, that at the time of the American
 revolution (continental congress, perhaps) that there was some
 consideration of adopting German as the language. I think it
 was supposed to have been motivated more by anger at Britain
 than admiration of Germany or the German language. So this
 would have been over 200 years ago.

The following is the reply from Christian K. Nelson:
 I immediately recalled a visit to Independence Hall in
 Philadelphia which served as the site of the Continental
 Congress during the revolution. In any case, I specifically
 recall that the tour guide claimed a vote in that Congress (or
 perhaps in the early Congress of the United States, if
 Independence Hall originally housed it after the revolution)
 was taken as to the "official language" of that Congress, and
 that English beat German by only 1 vote. The offered
 explanation for the popularity of German in that vote was that
 the choice of German was seen as a further symbolic revolt
 against England.

A similar point is made by Jakob Dempsey who points out that
around 1789 or so there were many German speakers in the 13
colonies so that the idea was not unreasonable (Germans continued,
along with Anglo-Saxons, to be one of the largest ethnic groups in
the U.S. throughout the 19th century), and that German was favored
by many as a snub towards the British, i.e. as a gesture of
defiance and independence. Heinz Kreutz reports that this story
even entered the sociolinguistics classes at his university

Now you will be eagerly waiting for the "real" story". It appears
to be known as the "Muhlenberg Legend"; i.e. that German almost
became the official language of the US. As it happens, a competent
source answered to my query, namely Anthea Fallen-Bailey, who in
1992/93 wrote an undergraduate honours thesis on that subject.

She sent a summary of the relevant portions of her thesis, and
provided references:
 This trend toward rapid assimilation [of German speakers to
 English] belies a legend that, soon after the American
 Revolution, there was some discussion about replacing English
 with German, giving the impression that Germans were
 politically active in pushing nationally for equal standing of
 their culture. What actually transpired was that anti-British
 sentiment encouraged consideration of a language other than
 English in order to enhance the break with England.
 Suggestions included Hebrew (because of the perceived link
 with the "original" language of Eden; Greek (for the location
 of the first democracy); or French (the language of logic and
 rationality) (Baron 1987: 37). "The German Vote", or the
 "Muhlenberg Vote" as it has variously been called, was not
 connected with this discussion, but instead related to a
 proposal in Congress -- on petition from a group of Germans in
 Virginia -- on 13 January, 1795, to **print** all federal laws
 bilingually in German and English. The legend further claims
 that the proposal lost by one vote; in fact, there is no
 record of the vote. The "lost by one vote" claim appears to
 come from a vote on an adjournment of the discussion, not the
 final vote itself (Baron 1990: 88)."

Elas Lattey adds that the legend was picked up by British and
American journalists, passed on in a distorted and inaccurate
form, and refurbished in the second half of the nineteenth century
to remind Americans that Germans might once again muster
sufficient power to turn around the language choice of the United
States. She further states that Frederick August Muhlenberg may
have cast the deciding negative vote, but that cannot be
determined from Congressional records. Kevin Varden adds that he
recalls that Muhlenberg was "a German printer, of all people, who
was concerned about the illegibility of the German double s
character in printed documents". (You may want to add 7-bit ASCII
email to this, if you wish.)

BTW, I have dug up from the abysses of my memory the source for
the "Nazi" part of my posting: I first encountered the story in
the novel by German writer Walter Kempowski (*1933), "Tadelloeser
& Wolff", where he describes in autobiographical fashion, his
youth in the Third Reich. Somewhere in that book he reports either
a history lesson or a Hitlerjugend meeting (can't recall which)
where this story is passed on as truth, and where he is told that
the decisive vote was cast by a German priest.

There remains to list all the references I have received. Thanks
to everybody who answered.


Baron, Dennis. 1990. **The English-only question: an official
language for Americans?** New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University

____________. 1987. Federal English. **Language loyalties: a
source book on the official English controversy.**, edited by
James Crawford, 36-40. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

David Crystal, 1991, Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge
etc 1991. p.365
Feer, Robert A. 1952. Official use of the German language in
Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

S. Heath and F. Mandabach. 1983. "Language Status Decisions and
the Law in the US". In J. Cobarrubias and J. Fishman (eds)
Progress in Language Planning. Berlin: Mouton.

Heath, Shirley Brice "English in our language heritage" in
Ferguson, Charles A. & Shirley Brice Heath. Language in the USA.
Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. 1981., p. 9:
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