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The Longest Now

English-German ice and national linguistic id
Saturday May 31st 2003, 10:30 am
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How close were we (back in the day) to choosing some other language as our national standard?

I have often heard of the Continental Congress discussion about what our national language should be.  Our high school American History teacher, the best in the county, loved repeating this story — but then her family was German, as so many Texans are — noting that German and Hebrew were on the list, and that German was much favored.  This much is all true, though it is more accurate to say that the Congress discussed whether we should have a national language.  The prevailing sentiment among those democratic lawmakers was that language choice should be left up to the people.

In 1780, John Adams proposed to the Continental Congress that official language academy be created to “purify, develop, and dictate the usage of English.” He idea was rejected for being undemocratic. (R.Reese, referencing the ACLU)

The story that there was a vote for our national language, and that English won out over German by a single vote, is a popular one — the best history teacher in Harris County liked to share that one too — but we have never had an official national language.  An Englishman sheds some light on the famous Muhlenberg story (courtesy of Carsten Quell, from Berlin):

David Crystal’s (1987) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (p.365):

Probably the best-known myth in the history of language planning is the story that German nearly became the national language of the U.S. in the 18th century, losing to English by only one vote in the legislature (the ‘Muhlenberg’ legend).  In fact, all that was involved was a request, made by a group of Virginia Germans, to have certain laws issued inGerman as well as in English.  The proposal was rejected by one vote, apparently cast by a German-speaking Lutheran clergyman, Frederick Muhlenberg (1750-1801).  But the general status of English as the major language was never in doubt.   (After Heath, S.B. & Mandabach, F. (1983): Language status decisions and the law in the United States  in: J. Cobarrubias & J.A. Fishman (eds), Progress in language planning: international perspectives (Berlin, Mouton), 87-105)

Quell adds, “I can only agree that this story is purported as fact by Germans, especially elder ones, on many occasions.  When and how it was spread I would be curious to find out.”

Aside from this trivia, the history of German language in America — as both first and second language — fascinates me. Benjamin Franklin spoke of the dangers of the country being overrun by German speakers and language in 1750.  German-speaking immigrants were the most numerous minority in the country through 1950.  I am particularly struck by the rapid drop-off in German (and other language) learning over the course of the two World Wars*.   


* Every time I say “World Wars” I think of some kind of Marvel Comics spectacular, such as The Beyonder I and II, and wonder anew about how much the comics of my parents youth (which spawned american comics of today) were a product of the wars and those times.

As former German, I am very interested in this (Muhlenberg) “Legend” because it was taught to us in school (1950 – 1960) in Germany. However, I am inclined to believe the writings that it actually just was as described, a secondary vote. BUT there is one twist, to believe a story, especially one of history, it is vital that the presenter appears unbiased and not as it sounds, very resentful of the story. That makes it questionable whether someone just want to destroy a “Legend” or truly has realistic grounds for his opinion.
On second hand, since English is the major language in the US, it is very impolite and destructive for any foreigner, especially an immigrant (very especially for illegal immigrants) to have any influence of the language spoken in the US.

Comment by Michael Sanders 11.07.07 @ 3:52 pm

In 2002 I heard from my history teacher, who happens to be Jewish, that at one time Congress was thinking about making German the Official National Language. Due to a World War breaking out however, no vote was taken and the motion was forgotten.

Comment by MR. RIGHT 09.28.08 @ 8:38 pm

An interesting comment. That sounds like a combination of two of the myths above…

Comment by metasj 09.29.08 @ 6:59 am

Is there anymore data you can give on this subject ? It answers a lot of my questions but there is still more facts I need. I will drop you an email if I can find it. Never mind Let me just use the contact form. Hopefully you can help me further.

Comment by KubaSeoTraume 04.05.11 @ 5:04 pm

Thanks for writing, Kuba. I wish I had the full story on when this began to be disseminated as myth. If I learn more I will update this post.

Comment by metasj 04.15.11 @ 7:54 pm

Bad Behavior has blocked 150 access attempts in the last 7 days.