On language laws — again

Jan 28, 2011 by

I’ve written already about language laws and how ridiculous I think they are. But recently another such law was proposed, this time in our country.

According to media reports, a New Hampshire state legislator Rep. Jordan Ulery has introduced a law that would require any shop featuring signs in any language other than English to also include all the official U.N. language, that is French, English, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and Arabic. Really? All six? In tiny letters?

What could possibly be the explanation behind such bizarre law? According to Ulery — and this is the comment that understandably drew ire from various corners — “when you establish a ghetto, you’re leaving yourself open to what happened to the Jews in Eastern Europe because you’re setting yourself up to be different”. This comment is as plainly anti-Semitic as it is simply factually wrong. It insinuates that Jews deserved the Holocaust because of what they did (this is the “blame the victim” idea so common also in connection with rape), whereas in truth Jews did not lock themselves in ghettos and the Pale — it was done to them.

Let’s note in this connection that this proposed law discriminates Jews vs. Arabs: Jewish businesses that might want to feature signs in Hebrew would need to include Arabic, whereas Arabic businesses won’t need to add Hebrew to their signs.

In the same vein, businesses that might wish to have signs in Spanish or Russian or Chinese — a Mexican taqueria, a Russian bakery or a Chinese restaurant — would only need to add five additional languages, whereas an Italian restaurant, a Polish bakery or a Japanese sushi place would need to add six languages. So the proposed law is inherently unfair.

One could understand a requirement to feature signs in the official language of the state. But the United States on the federal level has no official language. The U.S. Constitution does not say “English shall be the official language”, in the same way that the French and Russian constitutions do. But why have signs in the languages of the U.N.? Although United States is one of the countries that hosts the U.N. headquarters, the U.N. does not have jurisdiction here.

And one might even question the selection of the abovementioned six languages by the U.N. itself. Sure enough these are some of the most populous languages of the world. Mandarin Chinese, for example, is spoken by more people than any other language, with English a distant second with about half of the number of Mandarin Chinese speakers. However, English serves as the official or co-official language of more countries compared to any other language. Spanish, Russian and Arabic are also among the largest languages. However, Portuguese by all accounts has more speakers than French. But it is not among the U.N. official languages. Nor can one say that the U.N. languages represent the world’s largest countries: while China is represented, India is not.

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