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Vernellia R. Randall
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The University of Dayton

 

   
   

 

 

Toda ley, decreto, reglamento y disposicion que por su naturaleza deban publicarse, se publicaran en ingles y en Castellano. Art. XI, Section 21, California State Constitution of 1849, in its Spanish-language version; CAL. CONST. of 1849, art. XI, s 21, reprinted in THE ORIGINAL CONSTITUTION OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA 1849, at 12, 43 (Telefact Foundation 1965) (reproducing handwritten section of Spanish version of California's first constitution).

Juan F. Perea 

Official English Laws Demography And Distrust: An Essay On American Languages, Cultural Pluralism, And Official English, 77 Minn. L. Rev. 269, 250-256 (December 1992)(Excerpted, Citations Omitted).
Copyright (C) Jaun F. Perea 1992

. . . Language is both our principal means of communication and a social symbol, malleable and capable of manipulation for the achievement of social or political goals. As one scholar states, 

    [t]here is of course no such thing as an 'apolitical' language as there is no such thing as an 'apolitical' person.... Politics is human relations, and language is an organic component of such relations. It is simply impossible to disassociate languages from the contexts in which they are learned and used. 
For this reason a study of context, for our purposes the history of the legal treatment of ethnicity and different American languages, is fundamental for an understanding of the symbolic meaning of language. 

The context contains many components, social and legal. In America we have (and always have had) a situation where many languages coexist, with the English language dominant. Spanish, for example, is the second most-used American language. Sociolinguists sometimes refer to this situation as diglossia, defined as "[a] situation where two languages coexist in the same speech community but differ in domains of use, attitudes toward each, and patterns of acquisition and proficiency." As we can infer from this definition, coexistence does not imply equal dominance, prestige, or spheres of influence. 

Discussions of different languages and other aspects of ethnicity are discussions of human differences. And "it is almost an axiom of human society that ... [h]ierarchy is found everywhere superimposed upon difference." So it is with languages. Different languages have very different prestige values in our society. These differences in prestige manifest themselves through bias, conscious or unconscious, for or against certain languages. 

The perceived intelligibility, for example, of languages is influenced by these prestige rankings. For instance, if the people who speak a particular language have prestige and power, people perceive their language as easy to understand. Conversely, the languages of groups perceived as lacking in prestige and power, or groups who are the objects of prejudice, are often perceived as difficult to understand. 

Discourse itself, the expression of ideas, and the ordering of discourse, who gets to express ideas, who gets to express them first, and which ideas get expressed, also reflect hierarchy and relationships of power in society. As Michel Foucault wrote, "as history constantly teaches us, discourse is not simply that which translates struggles or systems of domination, but is the thing for which and by which there is struggle .... [D]iscourse is the power which is to be seized." For example, access to public forums or the press is an ample power indeed. The presence or absence of certain languages, their encouragement within or elimination from certain public forums, like the ballot in public elections, reflect the results of this struggle and the presence or absence of domination. Furthermore, discourse and the order of discourse are governed by ritual, and are thus endowed with social significance. Accordingly, we pay more attention to those discourses made significant through rituals with social sanction than to others. 

There are rules, formal and informal, conscious and unconscious, governing our discourse: "[I]n every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers and dangers." These principles, expressed in the context of discourse within a single language, apply with equal force to discourse in different languages, for a multilingual society must allocate its discourses and maintain rules to govern discourses in different languages. Legal rules or sanctions regarding discourse or the proper languages of discourse thus control that discourse and create hierarchy in the power of discourse. 

To some extent, language usage is self-regulating and reflects existing hierarchy. Speech communities may be defined as "[t]hose with whom we share a consensus about language structure, language use, and norms for interaction ... [and communities] within which we expect speaker intent and listener comprehension to mesh." Speech communities generally know and define appropriate rules for the use of different languages at different times. These rules can be both formal, as in a statutory rule, and informal, such as the unwritten rules governing the overwhelming number of economic and social situations in which English would be considered the appropriate language to use. The importance of informal English-language requirements should not be underestimated: knowledge of English is essential to success in the economy, in education, and in society. These are powerful incentives that have always led immigrant peoples to acquire English. 

Furthermore, government can manipulate differences in language competence for political purposes, such as by controlling access to power by requiring certain degrees of language competence so particular groups are favored and others disfavored. "Requiring a functional knowledge of the language for participation in political arenas in effect defines a boundary which impedes the political access of some citizens." The official English movement aims to regulate access to the political process through language in this manner. 

The symbolic value of a particular language can be made important as an aspect of nationalism. Furthermore, political problems are often sublimated into language problems. Language is often the bearer of strains and problems not related to communication. Despite its use as a symbol of nationalism, language is a poor proxy for political unity. As one writer has noted, "[c]ommunity of language and culture ... does not necessarily give rise to political unity, any more than linguistic and cultural dissimilarity prevents political unity." Political structures, therefore, are "not necessarily coterminous with language communities." Given the symbolic and psychological values attached to language, important psychological consequences result when the government intervenes and establishes language policies. As one scholar has explained, one should not minimize the psychological effects which language policies handed down from above have upon individuals. One's language is intimately associated with the individual; new languages are difficult to learn; and language is a particularly easy tool to use in political control. Therefore, when language policies establish boundaries between people and government the effects are likely to be quite significant: alienation, distancing, and political impotence.... Thus, language can be used not only to establish real boundaries but communicate attitudes and feelings of government toward people as well. 

In a democracy, the attitudes and feelings of "government" are those of the majority or its representatives. Thus the majority can manipulate language and language laws to express its approval or disapproval of favored or disfavored groups within the society. 

Often in our society favored and disfavored groups are defined by their ethnicity: race, national origin, religion, ancestry, and language. Language often has been the basis for discrimination against groups whose language is not English. Language is a fundamental symbol of ethnicity. As Joshua Fishman has written, [b]y its very nature language is the quintessential symbol, the symbol par excellence.... ... [It] is more likely than most symbols of ethnicity to become the symbol of ethnicity. Language is the recorder of paternity, the expresser of patrimony and the carrier of phenomenology. Any vehicle carrying such precious freight must come to be viewed as equally precious in and of itself. The link between language and ethnicity is thus one of sanctity-by- association.... Anything can become symbolic of ethnicity ... but since language is the prime symbol system to begin with and since it is commonly relied upon so heavily (even if not exclusively) to enact, celebrate and "call forth" all ethnic activity, the likelihood that it will be recognized and singled out as symbolic of ethnicity is great indeed.... [I]ndeed, it becomes a prime ethnic value in and of itself. 

Language is thus a crucial symbol of ethnicity. This is just as true of English as of Spanish or any other language. English is a crucial symbol of the ethnicity of America's dominant core culture. Language can be a symbol of group status, a symbol of dominance, and a symbol of participation in or exclusion from the political process. Campaigns to make a language standard or official can thus be seen as attempts to create or reinforce the dominance of the culture of which the language forms an integral part. [Back

 


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Copyright @ 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001. 
Vernellia R. Randall

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Thanks to Derrick Bell and his pioneer work: 
Race, Racism and American Law
(1993).