Back When America Was Multilingual

In spite of global economic woes and sovereign debt crises and the run up to World War III in southwest Asia, there are some who still manage to find the time to call for English-only laws in communities across America. Most recently, areas of Minnesota and Maryland have been banging the drum to make English the only official language. The adoption of such measures, in these two places, as in most places in America, is meaningless in the practical sense because most local governments already do business in English only. But, such measures are symbolic measures designed to send a message to undesirables who are insufficiently nationalistic in their choice of language.

An obsession with forcing the citizenry to speak one government-approved language has long been central to the plans of nationalists everywhere. Nationalism, that ideology that one’s country is better than everyone else’s, and that every foreigner is just slightly less human that you, has long thrived on the completely false and unproven notion that multilingual societies always sit perched on the precipice of chaos. We hear this often from red-faced nationalist paranoiacs who claim that “balkanization,” which they define as the unspeakable horror of allowing people to speak languages other than the one preferred by the majority, is a road to destruction. This contention is easily proven false within seconds by simply providing counter examples. After all, we all know what war-torn hellholes Switzerland, Belgium, and Canada are. The multilingual Austrian Empire, one of the richest and most prosperous societies in Europe for centuries, somehow survived centuries of the citizenry speaking German, Hungarian, and various Slavic languages. Unfortunately, it couldn’t survive Woodrow Wilson’s utopian meddling at Versailles.

But one doesn’t have to read tomes on European history to know what obvious nonsense is the claim that multilingual countries are unfeasible. Arguably, they’re much freer, because free countries allow variety that nationalist control-freak societies do not. In The Rise and Decline of the State, Martin Van Creveld notes that the idea of linguistic unity began to gain real currency toward the end of the 19th century. At that time, the ideology of the French Revolution, the idea that people in certain geographic areas should be forcibly unified under a strong state and coerced into adopting a single culture, gained a lasting foothold in Europe.

Certainly this idea was not totally new. English nationalism has been around since at least the 16th century. Thomas More found out what happens to those who insist on a more internationalist view, as did others, but it was in the 19th century that states really began to insist on cultural conformity from their own citizens and the citizens of those living in their colonies and conquered territories.

After 1870, the Italians simply made up a language based on a Tuscan variety. The French began demanding that all citizens speak the version of French spoken in Paris. Down the memory hold went languages like Piedmontese, Occitan, Mozarabic, and others.

Since the time of Queen Isabella and the Reconquista, the rulers of unified Spain had been shoving Castilian down the throats of all Spaniards, and everyone in their colonies. They saw Castilian as a tool to hold the Empire together. Practically speaking, it was a good theory.

Back when the United States was a free country, it was multilingual, and even a cursory look at 19th-century America reveals just how pervasive was the reality of a multilingual society:

Louisiana was largely a French-speaking state (General Beauregard, Union Officer and later Confederate General, for example, didn’t speak English until he was 11 years old); German was widely spoken, and until World War I, and the anti-German bigotry that came with it, German-language private schools were common throughout the United States; New Mexico did not have an English-speaking majority until the 20th century; the Amish spoke the Pennsylvania German language; many Americans of the Maine and Vermont borderlands were French-speakers only.

The reality of a multilingual society has been written into state constitutions as well. The original Colorado Constitution of 1876, for example, specifically mandates that laws shall be reproduced in three languages:

“Article XVIII, sec 8 (1876):

“The general assembly shall provide for publication of the laws passed at each session thereof; and until the year 1900, they shall cause to be published in Spanish and German a sufficient number of copies of said laws to supply that portion of the inhabitants of the State who speak those languages and who may be unable to read and understand the English language.”

We can also note that the rules of naturalization were a bit looser. Note the requirements for becoming a voter:

Article VII section 1 (1876)

“[The voter] shall be a citizen of the United States, or not being a citizen of the United States, he shall have declared his intention, according to law, to become such citizen, not less than four months before he offers to vote.”

One can only imagine the hackles raised by right-wing populists if a state today tried to adopt an amendment calling for all laws to be published in three languages.


10:56 pm on March 13, 2012