Jewish World Review June 13, 2006 / 17 Sivan, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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Say no to a language war | "You taught me language, and my profit on't/Is I know how to curse." — Caliban in "The Tempest"

Language is us. It not only reflects our thought but shapes it. It can liberate or enslave. It can prove a blessing or a curse. It can be our wings or our straitjacket. It can unite or divide. The U.S. Senate has just used it to divide us.

In the course of passing a slew of proposals in a brave attempt to bridge the growing divide over immigration in this country, the senators passed two provisions paying lip service to English that could prove the opening volley of a language war.

It figures. It's an almost arithmetical rule of democratic politics: For every statesmanlike compromise the politicians achieve, We the People get two superfluous little stupidities.

When it's used as a weapon, language can prove as tricky as a boomerang. Instead of settling disputes, it may only aggravate them. Why? Because language is so personal. Insult my language, insult me. What is the purpose of these two provisions except to provoke those who speak some language other than English?

Superficially, these two language provisions adopted by the Senate would seem innocuous enough. The first declares that English is the "national language" of the United States. The second calls English the "common, unifying language of the United States." Gosh, let's hope so.

Neither declaration, it is made clear in the small type, would negate the use of other languages in government work — like translations of tax guides, executive orders and legal regulations.

These mentions of language in the Senate's omnibus immigration bill would have little or no practical effect. They're only symbolic. But there's nothing "only" about symbols. Men live by symbols, and declarations like these, even if they declare the obvious, amount to the kind of provocation the country can do without just now. Or ever.

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If English really is our common, unifying language — and it is — why the need to officially declare it so? The message sent by this vote of confidence in the English language is how little confidence the U.S. Senate really has in English to compete on its own without political interference.

Such legislation leaves the impression that English needs help. It doesn't. At least not help like this, which is purely rhetorical. "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you." More ominous words have seldom been spoken.

English has become the international lingua franca of our time not by declarations and decrees, mandates and prohibitions, but because of its own innate and acquired qualities — the wealth and range of its vocabulary, its utility in business and diplomacy, its flexibility and variety, and its ability to absorb new concepts.

English has a saving lack of boundaries, and is able to assimilate foreign phrases and concepts with ease, even enthusiasm. It has no Academie francaise to restrict its vocabulary and usefulness. Is there anything sillier than the futile fight of the French to keep Anglicisms like Le Weekend out of their very official, not to say stuffy, language?

Just let English compete without interference in language's free market, and it won't need government's seal of approval to supplant its rivals. It'll rise and cover the earth like a universal flood. It's already doing just that.

The best thing our politicians can do for the English language just now is leave it the heck alone.

In every survey taken in this country, immigrants indicate a strong desire to learn English and an even stronger one to have their children speak it. Which their children do. And their grandchildren will speak it even more fluently. Which figures. English — or American, to be more precise — is not just the national language but a passport to upward mobility.

Canada's language war should have provided an example to beware. Rather than leave language to the essentially private spheres of culture and trade, the Canadians made it a subject of detailed regulations, social movements and political referenda. The result was general confusion and mutual antipathy. A national language ought to unite, not divide.

Thankfully, the language war that divided our neighbors north of the border has cooled in recent years, but it should never have begun. Note to Congress: The best way to win a language war is not to start one.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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