Thurmont, a beyond-the-beltway community in northern Frederick County, Maryland, is poised to make English its official language. On June 16, Mayor Martin Burns introduced a bill requiring town employees to speak only English and ordering Thurmont’s municipal paper-pushers to generate their copious (from the Latin) paperwork only in English as well.
Thurmont isn’t very big: its zip code, 21788, includes about 6,000 town residents, with another 5,000 people in the surrounding countryside. According to Mayor Burns, the official-English measure is necessary to ensure the proper integration of immigrants into the American melting pot: “It’s a way of saying, ‘We speak English in America. It’s the universal language.’”
Although it may seem premature of the mayor to equate America with the universe (the Klingons aren’t about to give up their language, not without a fight), it’s clear that while it was once a largely German-speaking area -- the linguist Ron Kephart reports that there are old tombstones in the local cemeteries with "Hier lagt..." on them (that's "here lies..." in German) -- today Thurmont conducts its municipal affairs in English because almost nobody in town speaks anything else. And Thurmont managed to become English-speaking without passing an official language law.
It’s not that Thurmont wants to turn immigrants away. It’s just that there aren’t very many in the neighborhood to turn away. According to the 2000 Census, the few Thurmonters who speak a language other than English (about 199 residents of Hispanic or Asian background and a couple of high school foreign language teachers) have no trouble communicating in English too. That’s only 1.9% of the 11,000 people who make up Thurmont 21788. In comparison, the national average of people over five years old who speak a language other than English at home is almost 18%, though most of them also speak English.
Since there’s not much demand in Thurmont for any language except English, no one was surprised when Mayor Burns acknowledged that the city has never received a request to do business in any other language. The new English-only law would just mean business as usual for the town’s municipal employees.
As it contemplates an unnecessary official English law, Thurmont joins the growing number of communities where everyone already speaks English but feels the need to protect the language from the barbarian hordes outside our gates (barbarian, from the Greek, meaning ‘someone who stammers,’ in other words, someone who doesn’t speak Greek – note that the Greeks considered the Angles and the Saxons, who would eventually bring English to England, to be barbarians).
Today’s nonanglophone barbarians are waiting patiently for entry visas, or they’re secretly slipping across our borders. These huddled masses bring with them their hope for a better life, their ethnic foods, and, worst of all, their vocabularies and grammars, secret weapons threatening to undermine the very language that holds this fragile nation together (very, from the Norman French; language, from the Latin, via French; that, from those barbarian Angles and Saxons invading Britain in the 5th century CE; fragile, from the Latin; nation, from the French; together, also from the Anglo-Saxons, who were originally a bunch of European guest workers who came to Britain as immigrants, liked what they saw, and decided to take it for themselves, which is exactly what the English did when they came to North America).
But it’s been suggested that the mayor’s goal is not simply to force Thurmont’s English speakers to use their language. Instead, it’s a measure designed to support the town’s anti-terrorism efforts. For along with the English-only law, Mayor Burns wants his police chief to apply for a federal program that trains municipal law enforcement officers to identify and deport illegal aliens.
Burns hasn’t actually ordered the police to stop and frisk anyone speaking a foreign language on the city’s streets – after all, that could discourage the town’s high school foreign language teachers from assigning homework, and it could keep the town’s teenagers out of the local Taco Bell. But a municipal language barrier is both easier and cheaper to erect than an electrified fence, and it could prove just as effective in enforcing Thurmont’s linguistic purity.
No one seems to have pointed out to the mayor that without an English-only law, Thurmont remains an English-only enclave, so why fix what ain’t broke (if you’ll pardon my French)? After all, the United States and England have no official language laws, and these two nations are responsible for making English – not Klingon – the universal language that it is today.
Satellite view of Thurmont, MD, whose Taco Bell and Peking Palace proudly serve ethnic food entirely in English for municipal workers and other patrons who only speak English. After all, as the mayor of Thurmont put it, "It's the universal language."