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Preserving cultural unity

Lance Gallup | Tuesday, November 14, 2006

While they were hardly the focus of the nation’s attention last Tuesday, there was no shortage of noteworthy and interesting ballot measures in the 2006 midterm elections. Tellingly, six states, including Ohio and Colorado, voted to increase the local minimum wage above the Federal rate. My home state of Michigan banned the use of affirmative action. (For the record, I voted against it.) And in Arizona, for the first time, English was declared the official language of the state.

Arizona is by no means the first state to declare English as its official language, which is why the measure received only passing media attention. In total, 27 states now have some form of law which makes English their official language, most of which were passed within the last quarter century. However, it is worth noting that there are three states, Louisiana (French), Hawaii (Hawaiian), and New Mexico (Spanish) that are officially bilingual. Nevertheless, Arizona is still significant, if only because, along with Texas, it was one of the two remaining states on the US-Mexican border without an official language.

I am a linguistic descriptionist insofar as I see fluidity as the primary strength of a language, as opposed to the proscriptionist viewpoint, which holds that languages should follow formal rules. This is largely because I take the view that an individual’s first language forms a unique psychological (and perhaps even spiritual) component of his or her identity. The role of the original language within the psyche can never be duplicated. Inexorably, our first language defines the limits of our thoughts, has a significant role in delineating the self, and provides a foundational component for our artistic and musical sensibilities.

In short, a native language is both vital and profoundly personal.

As a consequence of this view, I hold very strong opinions on language in general. I consider the destruction of a language to be an act of genocide, and I am not alone in this definition. I strongly oppose (and indeed find insulting) the use of Latin as a core component of the Catholic Mass. I see linguistic purity as a form of stagnation. And, for a very long time I strongly opposed the establishment of English as the nation’s official language.

At least, that is what I believed until this past summer, when pragmatism forced me to reverse my ideas.

America, on the whole, is not the best place to develop opinions about an official language, because the nation does not have many strong cultural isolationist groups. Certainly such groups exist (the German speaking Amish are an excellent example), but they have never comprised a significant percentage of the nation, nor have they exerted any major influences on our political or social landscape.

However, in Europe this is not the case. In recent decades the European continent has seen an enormous influx of Muslim immigrants, many of whom have brought with them a strong isolationist attitude that seeks separation between Muslims and non-Muslims. During the spring of 2006, Paris was burning in a series of labor riots. Ostensibly they were caused by angry youths who were unhappy with legislation that made it easier to terminate them. However, the fact that the vast majority of unemployed youth in France are Muslim cannot be overlooked.

Part of the unemployment rate is the fault of the French government for not having stronger affirmative action policies, but part of it is also a result of the isolationist culture that that the Muslim youth inherited. The immigrants and their children, partly because of linguistic isolation, found it nearly impossible to integrate with the urbane and secular society of France. Labor laws were only one spark in a major culture war.

Language is a core component of cultural assimilation, and the separation of language is essential to maintaining an isolationist subculture. America has always been lucky, in that it has largely had to assimilate people who already wanted to become part of its culture, and who had no qualms about reconsidering their beliefs in an American light. However, France made me realize that this is not something that can be relied upon. If America should find it self needing to integrate a major group that resists this incorporation, then it is unlikely that this will succeed without a unified linguistic front. Then we will have our own version of Europe’s morass.

Without a common linguistic heritage there can be no socio-political unity, and we will eventually find ourselves unable to agree on the basic tenants of our culture: the equality of persons, the value of science, political skepticism and genuine liberty. By the time I was in junior high the term “melting pot” was no longer politically correct. However, it is time that the melting pot returns. Language is precious, and must be protected, but so is unity, and having an official national language is a reasonable compromise to help ensure that unity.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He can be contacted at [email protected] This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.