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Re: What if

From:Melissa Phong <melissap@...>
Date:Thursday, November 18, 1999, 23:28
>On Thu, 18 Nov 1999, abrigon wrote:
>> reasons. The US almost did have German as the official lingo by like 1 >> or 2 votes of Congress or percents. I forget the whole story. To keep
>All that I've investigated say that this is utterly false.
From (Cecil Adam's column) There was some discussion just after the Revolution about switching to a=20 language other than English, but it's not known how serious this was-- probably not very. Nonetheless there's a 150-year-old legend that=20 English was almost replaced, not by Hebrew but by German. Supposedly it lost by one vote, cast by a German-speaking Lutheran minister named Frederi= ck=20 Muhlenberg. Some say the vote took place in the Pennsylvania legislature an= d=20 that Muhlenberg voted against it because he didn't want Pennsylvania to be=20 isolated from the rest of the nation. Another version, commonly heard in=20 Germany, says the proposal would have passed except that a German-speaking=20 legislator went to the toilet at the crucial moment. It never happened, of course. In the 18th century German speakers constitut= ed=20 a significant fraction of the population only in Pennsylvania (remember the= =20 Pennsylvania Dutch?), and even the most fanatical British haters weren't=20 crazy enough to think they could change the national language by legislativ= e=20 fiat. But the story isn't pure invention. Here's what really happened,=20 courtesy of Dennis Baron, professor of English at the University of Illinoi= s at Urbana-Champaign: In 1794 a group of German speakers in Virginia petitioned Congress to publi= sh=20 federal laws in German as well as English. The intention was not to supplan= t=20 English but simply to supplement it. A House committee recommended=20 publishing German translations of the laws, but on January 13, 1795, "a vote to adjourn and sit again on the recommendation" (apparently an=20 attempt to keep the measure alive rather than killing it immediately) faile= d=20 by a vote of 42-41. Frederick Muhlenberg (1750-1801) was in fact Speaker of= =20 the House at the time, but how he voted is unknown. Tradition has it that h= e stepped down to cast a negative vote, apparently being the German-speaking=20 equivalent of an Oreo. Not that it mattered. The vote was merely procedural= ;=20 its success would not have guaranteed passage of the measure, and in any ca= se=20 German translations of federal statutes are a far cry from making the Germa= n=20 the official language of the U.S. A similar measure came up a month later=20 and was also voted down, as were subsequent attempts in later years.=20 The Muhlenberg story was widely publicized by Franz Loher in his 1847 Histo= ry=20 and Achievements of the Germans in America. He wrongly set the event in the= =20 Pennsylvania legislature, over which Muhlenberg had previously presided, an= d=20 also wrongly claimed that Muhlenberg was reviled by his fellow German=20 speakers for selling them out. Germans did get on Muhlenberg's case for=20 later casting the deciding vote in favor of the Jay Treaty, which was viewe= d=20 as anti-German; his brother-in-law stabbed him and he lost the next electi= on=20 in 1796. Loher conflated this genuine controversy with the trivial language= =20 debate and the legend has survived ever since. The truth is that the U.S. has never had an official language. Several stat= es=20 have declared English official at one time or another, most recently in response to the influx of Spanish speakers. The so-called English Language=20 Amendment (ELA) to the U.S. Constitution, which would give English official= =20 status, has been before Congress since 1981, and given the country's=20 sour mood it may yet pass. But even if one concedes the usefulness of a common language in unifying the country, one might as well attempt to=20 legislate the weather.