On election day, while the rest of the country was busy charting the nation’s future, Arizonans took time out from the pressing business of war and the economy to overwhelmingly approve an amendment to the state’s constitution making English their official language. Framed as Proposition 103 on the ballot, the amendment requires state officials to “preserve, protect and enhance” the role of English, to avoid “any official actions that ignore, harm or diminish the role of English as the language of government,” and to protect “the rights of persons in the state who use English.” It was passed by 74% of Arizona’s voters, which according to the 2000 Census is exactly the same percentage of Arizonans who speak only English.
These monolingual voters clearly see that English, a language spoken very well by over 88% of Arizona’s residents and spoken not so well by another 11%, is in danger.
Prop 103 insists that Arizonans speak English because it’s “the common thread binding individuals of different backgrounds,” the only language that permits “diverse individuals to discuss, debate and come to agreement on contentious issues.” Though if sharing a common language were all it took to bring people together in perfect understanding and unanimity, we probably wouldn’t need all those lawyers clogging up the state’s legal system with interpretations of contracts and laws not shared by opposing counsel. Nor would we need laws or constitutions.
The referendum also scolds the state for past actions harming English and favoring other languages, actions which promote “division, confusion, error and inappropriate use of resources.” Apparently every non-English word printed or uttered in the state wastes taxpayer dollars, creates the need for even more laws and lawyers, and detracts from English’s market share. Except of course words like E pluribus unum or the less-familiar Ditat Deus, which is the state motto and surely needs no translation if you’re from Arizona.
Its dependence on Latin notwithstanding, Arizona is not new to the English-only fight. It sailed to statehood in 1912 partly by ensuring that most of the Territory’s Spanish speakers were redistricted into neighboring New Mexico. In 1988 Arizona passed the nation’s toughest English-only law, prohibiting any government official, from the governor on down to the dog catcher, from using a language other than English while performing official duties. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled the statute unconstitutional in 1998, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that decision.
Arizona’s new law has been re-engineered to survive another court test. It permits the teaching of foreign languages, the occasional official use of foreign phrases, and speaking or writing other languages as necessary to promote trade and tourism, to protect public health and safety, and to comply with federal law. State officials may also communicate in languages other than English while performing their official function, but only so long as they do so unofficially, and providing they can figure out the difference between official and unofficial speech.
There’s another “but,” and this is an important one: echoing the protectionist language of the Defense of English Act that has been before the Congress for several years, Arizona’s law provides that “a person shall not be discriminated against or penalized in any way because the person uses or attempts to use English in public or private communication.” It’s not clear that this has ever actually happened to anyone in Arizona, or even in the United States, but people feeling that they have been injured or discriminated against for using English now have the right to sue for damages. That should be reassuring to Arizona’s lawyers, who stand to benefit from the increase in nuisance suits that will accompany the law.
If anyone did an exit poll on Prop 103, they would probably find that it was supported by a solid chunk of voters who think it just makes sense that, since most people in the state speak English, everyone should. After all, they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. The Romans did speak English, didn’t they? Also supporting the law were voters determined to take a stand against immigration, legal or otherwise. For them the English-only law is really telling foreigners to stay out of Arizona, but they’re too polite to put that on a ballot.
But the danger to the people of Arizona isn’t that English will be swamped by the state’s Spanish-speakers, since most of them also speak English. Nor will the danger come from Arizona’s Navajo speakers, who make up only 1% of the population and who speak English too. Instead, the danger is that English, which without official protection has already managed to dominate discourse in Arizona, in the United States, and in much of the world as well, will continue to push all the other languages of the state further off the radar than they already are. Proposition 103 wants to make that happen sooner, not later.