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 email@example.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Friday, June 26, 2009
English is not in danger
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.