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7 November 2008

English Officially Official in Missouri; Parties in Tobian Still Allowed

As the airports I most commonly frequent are Heathrow and JFK (as well as Nowheresville International, of course), it's easy to forget that you really don't need to allow so much time when you are flying out of somewhere smaller. San Francisco International, last weekend, was near-deserted, which meant no queues to check in (I'd already checked in online to book a good seat just in case), a four-person queue at security and plenty of free seats in the departure lounge. It's almost a shame I had so much time to kill there when an extra hour at Heathrow Terminal 5 could have been much more fun (if expensive). 

I had a book with me but after an unprecedented seven (now eight) novels in a row, I was in need of a little non-fiction and so picked up a copy of Time magazine. Error. It was, of course, jam-packed full of election-related stories and while I haven't read a non-fiction book for a few weeks, I had had plenty of political news coverage via the intertubes, TV and just being in California generally. On a page summarising the propositions on which each state was voting, I noticed that Missouri was voting on whether to make English its official language. This of course made me wonder what Missouri's official language was and I didn't have wifi access on the CrackBerry to check it out.

However, several days later, I remembered to Google the question, "What is Missouri's official language?" According to Wikipedia, it was English (and this hadn't been edited since the results came in where 89% of the population voted in favour of the proposition). More surprisingly still (to me at least), according to the US English Inc. press release, only 30 of the states do recognise English as the official language--and the Americans laugh at the Canadians for their bilingualism! In any case, I can only assume that before Tuesday, there was no official language for the state, which was less interesting for me (I was hoping it would be something like Tagalog or the Bislama creole or something equally random). You do have to wonder whether the Missourians (Missouriites? Missourish?) saw the word "bilingual" on the ballot paper and thought the proposition was referring to something else--oh no, wait; that would be in California...

We had a couple of lectures on official languages, bi- and multilingualism in one of my Linguistics 101 courses, which I found quite boring--I knew there was a reason I decided not to study law! Duller still were the essays we had to write on the topic: "Discuss the linguistic situation in two of the following countries: Canada, Switzerland, Wales, Krzygstan." Zzz. The topic came up again in my final year Advanced Lingwistiks course where we had to write even more irritating essays such as, "Linguistics is a science. Discuss" and "What is a language?" (Conclusion: a collection of peeps' individual idiolects, which is generally demarcated by political borders--like Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia: the spoken language is the same but the use of the Roman alphabet stops at the Croatian border).

I find dialectology and regional language varieties quite interesting on a superficial level. For example, there are about 14 words for "plumber" in Italian depending on which region the speaker is from (Giovanni l'idraulico might be from Florence, whereas elsewhere Gio' might be known as a trombaio, fontaniere or a stagnaio), which must have got quite confusing during the last weeks of the presidential campaigns; then again, the only noun Italians seem to be able to agree over is il caffe--respect!--even the word now is addesso in the north, ora in the centre and mo' south of Rome. However, other than these anecdotes, I didn't really enjoy writing essays about the reasons for variation or learning which part of which country spoke which language and why. 

I digress. What does the new law mean for Missouri? According to the Missouri senate website:

"This act establishes English as the common language for all official public records and official meetings. Exceptions are created for oral communications by state employees in the performance of government business, language instruction, interference with the judicial system, emergency situations, international promotional activities and sign language."

It is like the reverse of France where one cannot legally play more than a certain amount of English-language music or they will be hunted down by the Academie Francaise. Then again, France doesn't have the best record when it comes to minority languages either, what with Pompidou claiming that regional languages were hurting France's efforts to take over the world (or Europe at least). Or how about the French spoken on a certain Channel Island (a former lecturer of mine is the world expert on this rapidly dying variety of French)? Amazon does allow people to purchase--for the bargain price of £17.99--a Learn a Dying Channel Island Language CD-ROM, optimistically noting that there are 2,000 speakers of the language. The CD-ROM's sales rank is 8, 410 in the software category, which I take to mean Amazon sells 8,410 different software products.

In Missouri, however, about 5% of the population speaks a language other than English at home; that's about 300,000 people. Of those, about 120,000 are Spanish-speakers, 35,000 are German-speakers and 25,000 Francophones. It's funny, I jokingly said that I hoped Tagalog would be the official language and there are about 6,000 Tagalog speakers--that's more than the total number of speakers of Dying Channel Island Language! Some of the comments on the blog posts I scanned seemed to suggest that voting in this proposition would deprive this 5% of the population of their culture, heritage and equality. The problem is that it isn't that 95% of the population of Missouri are Anglophones and 5% are Francophones--the minority 5% is spread so thinly across a variety of other languages that the domination of English is inevitable, especially given that English is also the national language. Besides, if I were a Croatian-speaking business owner who lived in Missouri and who wanted to promote my company, I can't imagine that producing my ads in Croatian--whether this was legal or not--would be a very sensible plan.

It's easy to forget, while travelling around the US, that even though the country is 332 years old, it really still is a collection of loosely-similar and geographically proximate states, each with their own laws, trends and beliefs. Maybe it is just because I pay so little attention to local politics in England that these varieties seem so striking to me; for all the comments about the north-south divide in England, compared to the hugely polarised US, we certainly are a homogeneous lot. It's probably all the tea...


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