Friday, May 19, 2006

official, national, or common language

i simply don't get all the excitement about whether english is our national language or "official language" or something officially declared as our "common and unifying" language.

the various levels of linguistic officialness has always been a little mind-boggling for me. when i visited my brother in east africa in 1995 (he was living in nairobi at the time) he explained to me that in kenya swahili was the "national language," but english was the "official language." meanwhile, in uganda, both english and swahili are the "official language" but only english is the "national language." or maybe that's not exactly what he said, maybe i'm getting it mixed up or reversed. but it was something like that. in any case, i still don't know what the fuck he was talking about.

the times article about the current debate seems to be defining the terms like this:

official language: "would require all government publications and business to be in English."

national language: "no one has a right, entitlement or claim to have the government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services or provide materials in any language other than English" although "government services and publications now offered in other languages would be unaffected[.]"

declaration of a "common and unifying language": apparently wouldn't do anything other than make a statement.

i guess if forced to choose, i would go with the "common and unifying language" declaration, but only because it doesn't seem to do anything. but that begs the question why we even need the declaration.

and the first two options are simply ridiculous. the government sometimes has to communicate with people. it seems rather obvious that it's much better if the government can deal with people in a language they understand rather than in one that they don't. and both of the first two would seem to prohibit at least some communications in a language other than english. why would anyone want to tie the government's hands by making it harder to communicate with people if it has to?