Linguistic nationalism and the USA

CNN.com - 'National' or 'common'? Senate ponders what to call English - May 19, 2006
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Whether English is America's "national language" or its national "common and unifying language" was a question dominating the Senate immigration debate.

The Senate first voted 63-34 Thursday to designate English as the "national language" after lawmakers who led the effort said it would promote national unity.

But critics argued the move would prevent people with limited English from getting language assistance required by an executive order enacted under President Clinton.

So the Senate also voted 58-39 to make English the nation's "common and unifying language."

"We are trying to make an assimilation statement," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, one of two dozen senators who voted Thursday for both English proposals.

There are many myths in the linguistic community about  the social and codificational peculiarities of English which particularly when compared with French is said to be much more open to change and welcoming of variety. Also, unlike many other languages it is not 'designated' as the official or national language in the countries that are associated with it. There is a concommitant myth about the UK and US as being (at least relatively) free of linguistic nationalism (or, as some claim, nationalism altogether). But debates like these reveal that English is just like other languages with respect to its community and the identity of its speakers. And lest we think this is a sign of some new worrying conservative influence, we should remind ourselves that this is not the first time such debates are held in the US (or UK or Australia). But those interested in the legacy of enlightenment (among whose numbers I reluctantly and cautiously count myself), should hope that these symbolic largely unnecessary bills get forgotten before they have a chance to become law, if for no other reason than to cling to the two-century-old mirage of the US as a beacon of intellectual and moral progress.