Should we make English the official language in the United States?

Sep 24, 2010 by

The San Mateo Examiner columnist Gregory Kane thinks so. His argument goes as follows: The top spots on the list of major economic powers and of major military powers are not occupied by Spanish-speaking countries like Spain or Mexico. Unsurprisingly, the United States takes the top spot on both of these lists. According to Mr. Kane,

“It’s the countries whose leaders recognize English as a global language, not Spanish, that will be the major military and economic powers of the future. Will we be one of them? Only if Congress makes English our official language, and soon.”

Again, unsurprisingly, Mr. Kane’s main target is Spanish: it is the second most widely spoken language in the United States, with over 28 million speakers in 2000. There are parts of the country — such as the Maverick, Webb, Starr, Kenedy, Zavala, Presidio and Hidalgo counties in Texas and certain parts of Florida, New Mexico, Arizona and California — which are predominantly Spanish-speaking.

But Mr. Kane’s argument that English became the de facto global language because of its inherent simplicity and “directness” (or some other such subjective properties) — found in other works, such as McCrum’s book Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language — does not hold muster. John McWhorter in his excellent review of McCrum’s book points out two main problems with this argument.

First, the property that is typically identified as the core reason that English managed to impose itself on such wide populations and to become the language of economic, scientific and technological progress is its near isolating nature, such as its being light on declension (no gender system or case marking left in Modern English) and conjugation (verbs do not have too many forms). But you cannot claim that this relative morphological simplicity makes it easier for a language to be universal without looking at the fate of other languages. On the one hand, there are purely isolating languages, such as Vietnamese, which did not become a global language (in fact, Vietnam does not make into either one of the lists mentioned above). So relative paucity of inflectional morphology does not really make a language easier to spread. On the other hand, there are languages like Russian, which are a lot richer in inflection and yet manage to grow and spread. According to McWhorter,

Russian started as a homely, unwritten Slavic dialect, but is currently spoken by 280 million people, speaking a vast array of indigenous languages natively. Yet Russian is murderously complex – three genders, verbs of pitiless complexity, assorted sounds that are tough to produce, squishy word order, unpredictable accent on words, and on and on. … Russians, too, are given to chauvinistic claims about their “great and mighty Russian language”, in which case one could posit that the complexity of the language makes it “mighty” as well as maximally clear. This would make, in the end, about as much sense as claiming that English has gotten around because it’s relatively easy to learn. Both English and Russian have spread the way they have because they were the languages that happened to be spoken by powers that happened to acquire vast amounts of territory.

Other examples of a complex language that spread — because of reasons that are about sociohistory and geography, not linguistics — include Arabic, Sanskrit, Cree, Tagalog and other complex languages. And as for Spanish, in a truly cross-linguistic picture, it’s not that much richer than English in its inflection. Take all the descendants of Proto-Indo-European (now that’s another language with complex inflectional morphology but which spread over an enormous territory — because of its speakers having horses and chariots rather than because of any inherent linguistic properties). Of all the Indo-European languages today, Germanic (including English) and Romance (including Spanish) did lose more morphology than languages in other branches.

But there is another serious error to the argument that the inherent properties of English made it — and continue to make it — a truly global language. In McWhorter’s words,

“…to the extent that geopolitical dominance and linguistic structure can be correlated, it’s in that the dominance causes the grammatical simplification, not the other way around. This was even part of English’s history –- when Scandinavian Vikings occupied England starting in the eighth century, they produced Old English in a stripped-down fashion just as many of us have produced French and Spanish in classrooms. There were so many of the Vikings that kids heard as much English of this kind as “real” Old English, and in a culture with little schooling or media, this “funny” English became the only English. … The Vikings didn’t pick up English because it was enticingly “universal” –- they made it easier by picking it up. … the world over, languages are on the easy side because they happen to have been imposed on a lot of adult foreigners. The lingua franca in Papua New Guinea, for example, is Indonesian, which delights the learner in having no gender, no conjugation, and no Chinese-type tones. … But that ease is no accident –- Indonesian has been imposed on speakers of hundreds of languages of the Malay Archipelago for over two millennia. That kind of thing sands a language down. Anyone who today said that Indonesian is spoken by 165 million because of its “universal” and “direct” structure would have the cart before the horse in a major and obvious way.”

And the final problem with Mr. Kane’s analysis is his confusion between using the language as the official language or a lingua franca (or a trade language) and its status as the native tongue of the population. Going back to the list of the top-10 economic powers, referenced above (United States, Japan, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Italy, China, Brazil, Canada, Spain), while English serves as the language of trade (business), science and technology in pretty much all of them, it is acquired by kids and spoken by a large proportion of the population at home in only three of the ten countries (United States, United Kingdom and Canada). Other countries have their own standard languages and lots of local dialects. (Only two of the top ten military powers — United States and United Kingdom — are English-speaking countries).

But probably the best prove that the choice of the official language is not a direct cause of the economic/military might comes from Korean. South Korea is #13 on the list economic powers and #12 on the list military powers, placing it among “the major military and economic powers of the future”, whereas North Korea placed #20 on the list of the military powers and didn’t make the cut for the list of 100 major economic powers (countries and corporations). It’s not a great secret that North Korea’s military might is built on the tragic suffering of its people. One does not need too much convincing that North Korea is not among “the major military and economic powers of the future”. And yet the two countries share the same language (even dialectal variation between the North and the South is said to be less pronounced than in many instances of dialects within the same country; cf. Italian dialects). So really, can it be that language predestines a certain nation, state or country to be globally important? I don’t think so!

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  • Brian Barker

    Globish reminds me of another failed project called "Basic English" which failed, because native English speakers could not remember which words not to use 🙂

    So it's time to move forward and adopt a neutral non-national language, taught universally in schools worldwide,in all nations. As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto

    Your readers may be interested in the following video at Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.n

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Thank you for the comment and the link, Brian! On Esperanto, read here:

  • Ivan Derzhanski

    And still, you know, I think that the ability to use anything (a loan from any other language, an acronym, a multi-word phrase, whatever) as a noun without having to worry how it’s going to decline, and to use any noun as a modifier of another without having to wonder how to convert it into an adjective, and to verb anything if need be, does make a difference in the present age, which differs enormously from all past ages in the amount and kind of concepts that appear every day, almost every instant, and want to be expressed.  Computer science is perhaps the field that takes the most advantage of the versatility of English.  Lisp programmers say `to cdr down a list’, meaning `to go down a list by applying the Lisp function cdr’.  This wouldn’t be quite so easy in Russian (с-cdr-иться по списку? про-cdr-ить список?).
     A program in COBOL reads almost as plain English, with the (intended) effect that it can be understood directly by a non-programmer.  I’ve seen Russian(ised) versions of COBOL, but they don’t sound nearly as natural.

    • While it is true that English can make anything into a noun without much morphological “magic”, it doesn’t seem to prevent very heavy borrowing into other languages, that do require morphological adaptation. Even Russian.