Angels in America

By Geoffrey Nunberg
From  Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 13,2

 The cause of language rights took a small step forward in December of 1994 when the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an Arizona constitutional amendment requiring state employees to use only English on the job. The court ruled that the law violated the First Amendment rights both of state employees who might have to use Spanish on the job and of monolingual Spanish-speaking residents of Arizona (who would be unable to communicate with employees of a local housing office, say, about a landlord's wrongful retention of a rental deposit, or to learn from clerks of the state court about how and where to file a small claims court complaint). And it echoed a recent Supreme Court decision in declaring that language restrictions were often used as a proxy for discrimination against specific national origin groups - an important point, since the law provides many more protections against national origin discrimination than against language discrimination per se.

 Still, it would be a mistake to make too much of the decision. For one thing, it isn't clear whether it will have any bearing on English-only laws and declarations in 16 other states, which are generally more vaguely worded than the Arizona law and which the court said have only a symbolic importance. Then too, the ruling has no effect on the private sector. In fact the very same appeals court that overturned the Arizona law had earlier upheld the right of a California employer to require bilingual employees to use only English in all on-the-job commmunication, a ruling that the Supreme Court refused to review last June. And in any event, court rulings won't do anything to diminish the broad popular support for these measures, which have won by lopsided margins almost every time they have appeared on the ballot. (The one exception is the Arizona amendment, which received only 50.5 percent of the vote, a number due in part to the draconian restrictions the measure mandated, and in part to aggressive media coverage and the opposition of most of the political establishment.)

 Just about the only group among whom the movement has won no adherents is linguists, who oppose it almost with a single voice. At its business meeting in 1986, the LSA unanimously adopted a resolution condemning English-only measures, which was later endorsed by more than 94 percent of the respondents to a mail ballot. Of course linguists tend overwhelmingly to be left-liberal in their politics, even by the standards of American academy. But 94 percent is an awfully high level of consensus, much higher, I suspect, than you would find on most other social questions. (I'd be surprised if you could get 94 percent of linguists to agree that Elvis is dead.) So linguists' opposition to the movement has to answer to something that runs closer to the professional bone.

 There's a lot not to like. The English-only movement battens on a distrust of linguistic diversity, a sense that multilingualism is a pathological condition that inevitably leads to civil conflict. In certain ways in fact the modern English-only movement is even more suspicious of multilingualism in the abstract than was the linguistic nativism of the early decades of this century. In those days immigrants were considered a threat because they were seen, wrongly, as infected with alien ideologies. Today they are considered a threat despite being seen, correctly, as seekers after economic opportunity and individual freedom. Their loyalty is suspect simply because they speak different languages, no matter that they want to be good bourgeois liberals like everyone else.

 It's a view that offends against our every ecological instinct. We hold, after all, that multilingualism is an absolute good, and that if the state has any obligations vis-a-vis language it is to foster and protect all the forms of speech that flourish within its borders, right down to the most insignificant snail darter among them. (It wouldn't be fair to say that our concern for languages exceeds our concern for their speakers, but only the first do we feel in our professional capacity.) Nor are we willing to concede that multingualism as such can ever be the source of social unrest. When the English-only people raise the specters of Canada, Belgium, and Sri Lanka, we don't stop at denying the relevance of these cases, though that would be reason enough to dismiss the parallels out of hand. We want to go further than this. As Joshua Fishman (1992: 167) writes:

Of course most of us aren't equipped to speak authoritatively about the particularities of the Sri Lankan or Belgian or Canadian cases, but we all want to believe that what Fishman says is true, and moreover that language differences can't be directly responsible for civil conflicts, that languages are always innocent parties. That's one of the lessons implicit in  much-repeated aphorism that a language is only a dialect with an army. Whatever people may suppose, that is, there are languages because there are nations, and not the other way round. So there are no linguistic conflicts that weren't first national (or ethnic, or religious) conflicts. If there were only language differences in the world, every country would be Switzerland.

 I said that this is what linguists believe, but I really should say "American linguists" (or maybe "Anglophone linguists"), because this picture of things has emerged chiefly in the American tradition, and was clearly shaped by local circumstances. If we can dismiss the idea that languages provide a basis for nationality, for example, it's partly because language has played almost no role in the process of American nation-building. It's true there were some half-hearted early efforts at establishing an American or "federal" language, as symbolized by Noah Webster's revised spellings, but by the 1820's or so, we had uneasily agreed that we would share our language with the British. Thenceforth language would play only a bit part on the American stage, and linguists would play none at all. And the dominance of English has never been seriously threatened, either domestically or, more recently, internationally. So the sporadic eruptions of linguistic nativism strike us as unwarranted and mean-spirited. We can afford to be tolerant.

 It's a view that puts linguists squarely on the side of the angels in the American debate. But as we know from other contexts, there's a certain risk in universalizing the American experience (and of course excessive universalizing is a vice that linguists have independent reasons to be wary of). Granted that we are right about the English-movement, can we be sure that linguistic dirigisme doesn't have a place in other polities, or even that linguists may not have a proper role in it?
 As it happens, just a few months before the Ninth Circuit ruled on the Arizona law there was another legal decision that brings home the question in a very pointed way. This one came from the French Constitutional Council, ruling on the constitutionality of the controversial loi Toubon, named after the Gaullist minister of culture. Among other things, the Council struck down a section of the law that contained a list of several thousand French expressions that must be used in place of their foreign - invariably, English - equivalents in all advertising and all radio and TV broadcasting. This had been the most publicized of the law's provisions, and had been much ridiculed by its opponents (who had taken to referring to Toubon as "Mr Allgood"), so the Council's ruling was widely taken as a defeat for the law as a whole. But in fact the Council let stand most of the central provisions of the law, which made the use of French obligatory in all work contracts, public notices, and advertising. (The Council objected to the word list only because it held that the state had no authority to explicitly define which expressions could count as French, except in official communications - a decision that as one newspaper observed permitted journalists to go on describing as a "match de football" what the minister of sport would henceforth be contrained to call a "partie de balle au pied.") And the Council ruled, too, that the state was within its rights to require that conferences and professional meetings must publish agendas and resumes in French, and if state subsidized, must provide interpreters for all non-French contributions, with an exception made only for meetings aimed at selling French goods abroad. In short, the Council upheld the constitutionality of a measure that imposes restrictions on the use of foreign languages that go well beyond anything the American English-only movement has proposed.1

 Not surprisingly, the law came in for a lot of derision from the Anglo-American press (and from some of the French press, too; the socialist weekly Globe Hebdo published an attack on the measure that was written entirely in English save the word connerie - very approximately, "a silly thing to do.") The responses often took the deceptively bantering tone of the set piece that French cultural foibles usually evoke. They took the parodically gallic tone epitomized by the article that began, "Ah, the French!," and were sprinkled with enough French expressions to demonstrate the author's cosmopolitan familiarity with the object of his criticisms (best headline, from theWashington Post: "C'est What?"). But the form didn't mask a genuine indignation over the "arrogance" of the French and the perceived affront to Anglo-American civilization. A column in the Sunday Times of London was headlined "France, the Shrill Nag of Europe," and began: "Let's face it, they have never forgiven us for failing to be good Europeans and surrendering in 1940." A Conservative MP said that the policy was "just a stone's throw away from ethnic cleansing." The American press  lost no opportunity to denounce the measure in the name of liberty  - "a sad commentary on a great nation when freedom of expression and individual choice are sidelined in the name of chauvinism," the Journal of Commerce wrote, and went on to draw the connection to the French insistence on keeping cultural products out of the GATT trade agreement. (In matters of language, we Anglophones are all free traders, as who wouldn't be with so favorable an export balance.)

 Glass houses, you want to say, but the French do have a lot of this coming. The loi Toubon is indeed a display of arrogance, not because it offers any real insult to the English language or its culture but because it presumes that the inroads of English can be reversed by official decree. (Ah, la classe politique!) Yet it's hard to argue that the measure is objectionable in the same way the  Arizona law is. For one thing, the two measures have very different targets. English-only is aimed at immigrants and speakers of minority languages, the most marginalized members of American society. Whereas for all the fulminations about the "Anglo-American menace," the loi Toubon and similar measures are of course directed at the French, and at a segment of the French elite at that - the media figures, advertisers, business leaders, and the rest who have abetted the flood of anglicisms into French, the scientists who have abandoned French as a vehicle of international communication. Really the whole controversy is just another of the guerres franco-françaises that periodically disrupt the intellectual life of the Republic.

 Then too, the measures have very different sources of support within the national political community. Most of its prominent proponents have been drawn from the loose-canon right, such as Republican senatorial ditzes S. I. Hayakawa,  Steve Symms, and Jeremiah Denton.2  And while establishment conservatives have been generally leery of endorsing English-only as such, they've had no qualms about weighing in against bilingual education and similar programs, echoing the criticisms of neoconservative intellectuals like William Bennett and Diane Ravitch and cranky monoculturalists like Arthur Schlesinger. It's true that the English-only movement has often been able to win the electoral support of liberal as well as conservative voters, particularly where it plays on ethnic tensions. In Miami Beach, for example, Jews voted for an English-measure in 1988 by a margin of twelve to one, even as they gave a slight majority to Michael Dukakis; in the same election the Cuban community voted overwhelmingly against the measure and for George Bush. But the movement, like anti-immigrant politics in general, is much more a creature of the right than of the left.

 Of course the French measure, too, was introduced by the right. But Toubon's policies are really just a continuation of those of his socialist predecessor Jack Lang, and the ensuing debate has split both sides of the political spectrum. The appeal to the Constitutional Council, for example, was brought by a group of socialist deputies, but the law is also supported by a number of left politicians and intellectuals. What's more, the measures have the support of a fair number of people in the language sciences. The noted lexicologist Alain Rey, for example,  defended the word list provision in an article in l'Evenement du Jeudi. And even French linguists who consider these decrees absurd and autarchic - the majority among those I've talked to - are willing enough to concede the existence of a problem and to acknowledge the state's authority to do something about it.

 In part this intellectual support for the loi Toubon is just another eructation of a reflexive anti-Americanism, itself merely the latest version of an anglophobia as timeless as the francophobia that animated a lot of the British and American reactions to the bill. But the law also sits quite comfortably with the ideology that has shaped most linguists and intellectuals over the last century or more. Since the time of the Third Republic, language has played a central role in creating a secular, republican conception of culture that could stand as a counter to traditional institutions like the aristocracy and the church as a basis for national identity. And linguists and lexicographers were naturally associated with the republican program - Littré the republican deputy and follower of Comte; Larousse whose dictionary has been described by the historian Pascal Ory as "the alphabet of the [Third] Republic"; Meillet the collaborator of Durkheim; Passy the son, nephew, and cousin of liberal deputies and ministers. It isn't going to far to say that French linguistics like French sociology was a republican science.

 All of this helps to explain why France should make a place for official solicitude about the status of the language that has no parallel in the English-speaking world, and why everyone, themselves included, should expect French linguists to assume a certain responsibility for their language. (I don't know which is harder to imagine - American linguists delivering themselves of considerate opinions on spelling reform, or the American press paying them respectful attention.) And it explains  - but doesn't excuse - the French government's reluctance to take actions to implement a recent European Union proclamation that requires member states to protect the rights of speakers of minority languages, even to the point of denying that minority languages are still used within French borders as primary forms of communication. ("Occitan," I heard a member of the Délégation à la Langue Française  declare, "is simply French with a few particular turns of phrase.") The great social achievement of the Third Republic, after all, was the system of public education aimed at turning "peasants into Frenchman," in the title of a famous history of the period, chiefly by making everyone literate in the national language. The process was sometimes accompanied, it's true, by the suppression of patois and minority languages. But this didn't take so violent a form as the supressions of Irish or of Native American languages, and in the end the policy was successful in creating a new sense of national unity, in part because the new Frenchmen faced no racial or religious barriers to taking their place in the national culture. And when you consider the recent experience of other European nations that haven't been able to establish a standard national language, you can see why most of the French would have few overall regrets about their own historical policies.

 Of course none of this means that the loi Toubon is warranted. If the French authorities really wanted to do something about the spread of Franglais, they'd be better advised to raise the level of English education to the point where familiarity with English was so widespread at all levels that there was no longer any snob value attached to using it. Still, the law probably won't do much harm, apart from discouraging a few international congresses from meeting in France - deplorable, but not on the order of the mischief worked by English-only laws in America. And even if we disapprove of the law, we can stop short of condemning the official linguistic nationalism that it expresses, which for all its cultural narcissism has been largely a progressive historical movement.

 We want to be careful about judging linguistic nationalism in the abstract. We linguists tend to be reflexive supporters of movements on behalf of minority languages, for example, but historically these movements have often kept some unsavory company. The Flemish nationalists collaborated with the Germans during both world wars. The Basque nationalists of the 1930s stressed the racial purity of the Basque people, as witnessed, they explained, by the absence in Basque of the Semitic loan words that had polluted Spanish. The founders of the Welsh Plaid Cymru of the same period were closely allied with the fascist-leaning Action Française. And there's no shortage of modern communities where the demand for official recognition of a language is the key element in a program of narrow ethnic separatism - more now, perhaps, than in the 19th century. As Eric Hobsbawm (1990: 164) has observed, late 20th-century linguistic nationalism is unlike the small-nationality movements that were directed against the Habsburg, Tsarist, and Ottoman empires, which aimed at replacing outmoded forms of political organization with the "modern" nation-state. Now such nationalisms tend to be negative and divisive, attempts to "keep at bay the forces of the modern world." This isn't to say that there is ever a grounds for actively suppressing the languages around which such movements coalesce, and it's often possible to separate the legitimate linguistic demands of a people from the disagreeable doctrines that are tied to their tail. But nations sometimes do have a compelling interest in insisting on a single cosmopolitan standard. Switzerland is not a state of nature.

 The American linguistic situation is fairly anomalous in the word scheme of things, and so is the situation of American linguists. When you think of the history of the field in other nations, you realize how unusual it is for a linguistic tradition to develop independently of the formation of an official national culture, much less to cast itself in opposition to it. It would be hard to imagine the Prague School linguists taking a contrarian position on standardization, say, but then of course Czechoslovokia was  - I started to write "is" - not America and Czech is not English. We alone have had the special grace of disinterestedness and political innocence. I think of what Randall Jarrell once said about the difference between Americans and Europeans: "They are smarter than we, and we are better than they. Their sophistication has, unfortunately, made them bad, just as our naivete has, fortunately, kept us good." At least when linguistic nationalism begins to sprout in a soil that is so uncongenial to it, we (and we alone, it almost seems) can be counted on to do the right thing. Fortunate the nation that gets the linguists it needs.


 Joshua Fishman: 1992, 'The Displaced Anxieties of Anglo-Americans,', in James Crawford (ed.), Language Loyalties, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 165-170.

Eric Hobsbawm: 1990, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

1 In some localities English-only advocates have pushed through ordinances that restrict the language of advertising and signage, and some have talked about organizing boycotts of companies like Burger King and Philip Morris that advertise in Spanish, but the national organization has been chary of proposing restrictions on the use of language in the private sector.
2 It's true that the movement has also been supported by some centerist Democrats like Huddleston of Kentucky and Byrd of West Virginia. But it was the Democrats who stifled a House vote on an official-English measure a few years ago, a move which irritated some Republicans to the point where some language-rights advocates worry that the Republicans may try to pass a statutory version of official English now that they control the Congress.