Once again the House of Representatives is considering legislation to make English the official language of the United States. Supporters of the measure say that English forms the glue that keeps America together. They deplore the dollars wasted translating English into other languages. And they fear a horde of illegal aliens adamantly refusing to acquire the most powerful language on earth.
On the other hand, opponents of official English remind us that without legislation we have managed to get over ninety-four percent of the residents of this country to speak the national language. No country with an official language law even comes close. Opponents also point out that today’s non-English-speaking immigrants are picking up English faster than earlier generations of immigrants did, so instead of official English, they favor “English Plus,” encouraging everyone to speak both English and another language.
I would like to offer a modest proposal to resolve the language impasse in Congress. Don’t make English official, ban it instead.
That may sound too radical, but proposals to ban English first surfaced in the ferment after the American Revolution. Anti-British sentiment was so strong in the new United States that a few super patriots wanted to get rid of English altogether. They suggested replacing English with Hebrew, assumed by many in the eighteenth century to be the world's oldest language, the one spoken in the garden of Eden. French was another candidate to replace English, because it was thought at the time, and especially by the French, to be the language of pure reason. And of course there was Greek, the language of Athens, the world’s first democracy (a democracy so long as you weren't a woman, a slave, or a non-Athenian). It’s not clear how serious any of these proposals were, though Roger Sherman of Connecticut supposedly remarked that it would be better to keep English for ourselves and make the British speak Greek.
Even if the British are now our allies, there may still be some benefit to banning English. A common language can often be the cause of strife and misunderstanding. Look at Ireland and Northern Ireland, the two Koreas, or the Union and the Confederacy. Banning English would prevent that kind of divisiveness in America today.
Also, if we banned English, we wouldn’t have to worry about whose English to make official: the English of England or America? of Washington or Hollywood? of George W. Bush or Nancy Pelosi?
Another reason to ban English: it’s hardly even English anymore. English started its decline in 1066, with the unfortunate incident at Hastings. Since then it has become a polyglot conglomeration of French, Latin, Italian, Scandinavian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Celtic, Yiddish and Chinese, with an occasional smiley face thrown in.
The French have banned English, so we should too. After all, they have reason on their side.
We should ban English because it has become a world language. Remember what happened to all the other world languages: Latin, Greek, Indo-European? One day they’re on everybody’s tongue; the next day they’re dead. Banning English now would save us that inevitable disappointment.
Although we shouldn’t ban English without designating a replacement for it, there is no obvious candidate. The French blew their chance when they sold Louisiana. It doesn’t look like the Russians are going to take over this country any time soon — they’re having enough trouble taking over Russia. German, the largest minority language in the U. S. until recently, lost much of its appeal after two world wars. Chinese is too hard to write, especially if you’re not Chinese. There’s always Esperanto, a language made up over a hundred years ago that is supposed to bring about world unity. We’re still waiting for that. And if you took Spanish in high school you can see that it’s not easy to get large numbers of people to speak another language fluently.
In the end, though, it doesn’t matter what replacement language we pick, just so long as we ban English instead of making it official. Prohibiting English will do for the language what Prohibition did for liquor. Those who already use it will continue to do so, and those who don’t will want to try out what has been forbidden. This negative psychology works with children. It works with speed limits. It even worked in the Garden of Eden.
[From the archives: a version of this essay appeared in the Washington Post in 1996]