The Official Language of the United States

The official language of the United States is English, of course! Everyone knows that. Easiest Cat Flag blog post ever. Well, see you next time, Cat Flaggers! Have a wonderful 4th of Jul…

Wait a second.

Of course it’s not that simple. Otherwise, why would I blog about it?

No, believe it or not the United States of America has no official language! This is a very unusual distinction, as only seven other countries don’t have a legally-recognized official language.

What is an official language, anyway? It’s a language that is given a special status by the laws of a country as the language of formal government business. Usually, this also gives the official language a symbolic status as the “national language”, symbolizing the unity of the country’s people. For example, in Pakistan, 74 different languages are spoken, with five languages having more than ten million speakers. However, the Pakistani government designated Urdu as the official language of the country to bind the people of Pakistan together, and most Pakistanis are able to speak fluent Urdu, which is useful when talking to someone with a different native tounge.

However, official languages are also sometimes used to symbolically recognize minority groups in a country and be inclusive toward them. Canada has two official languages: English and French. This is because most Canadians speak English in their day-to-day lives, but some Canadians, particularly in the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick, speak French instead. All acts of the Canadian national government, from laws to court rulings to official documents, must be in both languages. On top of that, Canada’s highest-ranking political leaders are expected to be bilingual.

Sometimes countries can go to extremes with their official languages. South Africa has eleven official languages. Neighboring Zimbabwe has 16. India, arguably, has the most official languages, ranging from 18 to 23, depending on what you count, as India’s language laws are quite complicated and often contradictory, with different levels and degrees of official-ness assigned to each language.

Yet the good ol’ U-S-of-A has never actually passed any law that declares any official language whatsoever. Which begs the obvious question: why?

Well, it’s certainly not for lack of trying.┬áVarious important figures in American history from John Adams to Theodore Roosevelt have proposed formal declarations of an official language for the United States, and there is an entire political movement that lobbies for an official language law. Naturally, all of these proposals have suggested English as the official language, except that one time in 1923 when Congressman Washington J. McCormick proposed a bill to make “American” our official language.

Oh, and you may have also heard a story that in 1795, Congress almost voted to make German our official language, but this is patently untrue – what actually happened was that Congress voted on whether or not to permit a printer to translate the federal laws into German, and adjourned before any decision could be made.

Regardless, it seems rather odd that in spite of all these proposals over the years, we never have formally adopted English as our official language. I mean, almost every other country has an official language, after all! Yet, believe it or not, there are actually groups that staunchly oppose any declaration of an official language, arguing that doing so would violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech and only serve to stoke anti-immigrant hatred and discrimination.

Still, I personally feel there is another reason that America has never adopted an official language. We don’t need one. About 80% of Americans speak English at home, and almost 60% of those who don’t can still speak English “very well”, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. English may not be our official language, but it’s sort of an unofficial-official language. I mean, almost all formal government business at the federal level is conducted in English, which as we stated in the beginning, is what an official language is for. Whenever some member of Congress proposes a bill to make English our official language, it dies in committee, not because the other members of Congress are opposed to the idea, but because they have more important things to worry about.

But you know who does have the time to worry about meaningless things like official languages? The states.

That’s right, thanks in large part to those official-language advocates I mentioned earlier, 32 state governments┬áhave formally declared English as an official language of their state, including my home state of California. Plus, all five of the U.S. territories have English as an official language as well.

You will notice, though, that I said English is an official language of these places. That’s because, in some cases, these states and territories have given official status to other languages alongside English. Hawaii has two official languages: English and Hawaiian. In Alaska, all 20 of the indigenous languages spoken by native peoples in the state were made co-official in 2014. Puerto Rico, meanwhile, has Spanish and English as official languages, with Spanish as the “primary” official language. American Samoa has English and Samoan as co-official. Chamorro is an official language on Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, while the latter also includes Carolinian among its official language list as well.

Then you have some states that are unusual cases. When New Mexico became a state, it had two official languages, English and Spanish. However, that clause has since lapsed, and the state no longer has any official language, though its laws give certain protections to Spanish speakers. Similarly, Louisiana has never had an official language, but unofficially, it has always been a bilingual state with English and French both being used by the state government.

That’s not even to mention all of the many Indian reservations across the United States, most of which have declared their tribe’s traditional languages as their official language, as part of an effort to help preserve these languages. It is very common for schools on reservations to teach these tribal languages to the next generation.

I suppose it was inevitable that a country that is home to speakers of at least 350 languages would have a complicated relationship with language. Still, it’s strange and bizarre facts about my home country like these that are a part of what I love so much about it. Stay weird, America, and have a Happy 4th of July!