John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Friday, June 26, 2009

English is not in danger

A few days back, Language Log published a sneer at a panel discussion on English-only measures at the “Building the New Majority” conference sponsored by The American Cause, Pat Buchanan’s organization. I am afraid that Mark Liberman, whose headline for the post was “Conferenece of dunces,” may be insufficiently respectful of Mr. Buchanan and his endeavors.*

For my part, I have been bewildered for years at the recurring propositions that (a) the English language is in some kind of danger and (b) some kind of governmental action can protect it.

I once wrote an op-ed piece for The Baltimore Sun on proposition (a). It is no longer available in a public archive, but I can summarize its points. English has become a world language, more widespread than Latin at its high-water mark. It’s hardly like Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, whose dwindling population of speakers gets annual attention in wire service feature stories. People around the world are keen to learn English, and you can make a modest living by teaching it to them.

I suppose that the perceived threat to English is the number of people in the United States whose primary language is Spanish or Chinese or something else that sounds like an outlandish tongue to middle-aged white American monoglots. But I live in a city that as recently as a century ago had public schools in which instruction was conducted in German, and yet somehow the Kaiser did not prevail here.

As to proposition (b), the failure of the French Academy to preserve the purity of French from inroads by English and other languages should be instructive.

If that is not a sufficient example, consider this passage from H.L. Mencken’s The American Language:

[S]o early as February 15, 1838, the Legislature of Indiana, in an act establishing the State university at Bloomington, provided that it should instruct the youth of the new Commonwealth (which had been admitted to the Union in 1816) “in the American, learned and foreign languages ... and literature.” Nearly a century later, in 1923, there was a violent upsurging of the same patriotic spirit, and bills making the American language official (but never clearly defining it) were introduced in the Legislatures of Illinois, North Dakota, Minnesota and other States.

Further, Mr. Mencken writes, Jay McCormick, a Republican of Montana, introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives proposing “That the national and official language of the Government and people of the United States of America, including Territories and dependencies thereof, is hereby defined as and declared to be the American language.” Mr. McCormick’s bill died quietly and unmourned.
You may be aware, from what you say and hear and read and write every day, that American English, as distinct from the British and other varieties, has done all right for itself, without having to be propped up by the regulatory and military might of the federal government or the constituent sovereign states.

The polar ice caps are melting, hundreds of thousands of people (including your most humble & ob’t. servant) are out of work, and the National Threat Level is an ugly orange. Worry about those things and leave English alone. It has done quite nicely on its own for the past six centuries and more. It does not require assistance.

*When a measure was introduced to make English the official language of Taneytown, Maryland, I had a little innocent fun with the subject myself.


  1. Part of the English-only movement in the teens and 20s was, I believe, a reaction to WWI and our sudden antipathy to things German. (Cf our institutionalized distrust of ethnic Japanese during WWII.) In any event, no matter how vehemently its defenders deny it, the English-only movement is essentially racist: we need to be protected from the "threat" of foreign [language|people|anything]. In fact, tho, on its own territory, English will eat up these supposed threats and yield fascinating variants like Spanglish and Chinglish.

  2. My young daughter often said she spoke "Anguish", instead of pronouncing it "English". How does that compare?

  3. That wasn't quite the Language Log hed, and deliberately so. See the pic there.

  4. I LO-O-O-OVE your "innocent fun" (Speak English only, please)!

  5. OOPs! Sorry I didn't get the title right (Speak English, or else). I really must learn to slow down and pay attention to what I do on the internet. It's becoming a bad habit not to.

  6. Note that the Language Log post was titled "A Conferenece of Dunces" and not "A Conference of Dunces." It was a riff on the misspelled sign in the picture, a sign that was presumably approved by the organizers of the conference.

  7. I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

    The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is impractical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Impractical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential.

    An interesting video can be seen at Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

    A glimpse of the global language,Esperanto, can be seen at

  8. Modern Aramaic is "the language Jesus spoke" only in the sense that Sarkozy, Calderón, Cavaco Silva, Berlusconi, and Băsescu all speak Latin. Like the Romance languages, the modern Aramaic languages constitute a family of related, but not mutually intelligible, languages.

    It's also probable that Jesus spoke Greek as well as Aramaic. Pontius Pilate, as an educated Roman, would have known both Latin and Greek, but hardly Aramaic; if their private conversation is at all historical, the common language would have been Greek. Greek was also the language of administration in Judaea at the time.