I was reading the wikipedia entry on the Breton Language and found the history of the language to be quite fascinating. I did not know that a major celtic language was spoken in one of the major regions of France. Furthermore, I would have assumed that such a language would have been a descendent of the early Gauls who populated the region prior to the Roman conquest. However, this assumption would be mistaken. I learned that Breton was brought to France by Celtic folks from the British Isles who fled to France in the 500s, presumably to escape invading Germanic Tribes, such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who were attacking Britain at that time.
What I find to be most interesting, though, is that Breton, along with most minority languages in France, was hotly suppressed by the radical left-wing Jacobins during the French Revolution. In order to understand this, a brief historical survey is needed.
Apparantly, when the first Breton-speakers arrived, they were mostly members of the nobility, their servants and dependents. Over the course of centuries, their numbers grew and became self-sustaining communities. However, the nobility of Brittany (the region of France where the Bretton speakers settled) quickly adopted Latin and French for communication purposes, as they wished to partake of the economic and political largesse that knowledge of said languages in France could afford them. This was especially the case since the official business of the French King was done in French and Latin.
After the nobility switched to French and Latin, the Bourgeoisie (or upper middle and middle classes, the professional classes and merchant classes) made the switch as well, but this was not as complete, and they had a great facility in going back and forth, from what I have read on various other websites.
By the 18th century, the speaking of Breton was seen to be primarily focused among the peasantry and this was never contested by the French monarch, who didn't really care what language the peasantry spoke. Again, his only concern was being understood by the nobility.
Well, during the French Revolution, the Breton language was suppressed by the Jacobins. This, from wikipedia:
" The French Monarchy did not concern itself with the minority languages of France spoken by the lower classes, although it did require the use of French for government business. The revolutionary period saw the introduction of policies favouring French over the regional languages, pejoratively referred to as patois. It was assumed by the revolutionaries that reactionary and monarchist forces preferred regional languages in an attempt to keep the peasant masses under-informed. In 1794, Barère submitted to the Comité de salut public his "report on the idioms", in which he said that "federalism and superstition speak breton". Under the Third, Fourth and Fifth republics, humiliating practices aimed at stamping out the Breton language and culture prevailed in state schools until the late 1960s."
I wonder if this was the case? Did the existence of minority languages in France, prior to the Revolution, add to the power of the monarchy to keep regional peasant communities under-informed, parochial and sepperated from their fellow countrymen?
Were the Jacobins correct in pushing for an official, national language on progressive, leftist grounds? On grounds that it would unite the country and create a national folk-community where all would be able to commune at the alter of liberty, fraternity and egality? Would this common effort be hindered through regional and linguistic differentiation?
In our own time, the right wing pushes for "English Only," but this is done for reactionary, bigoted and xenophobic purposes, far removed from the progressive motives that seem to have underlay the policies pursued by the Jacobins.
Certainly, bilingualism and trilingualism enhance the power of our citizenry in the international marketplace. I think all Americans should know more than just English. That said, I also think that we should make a greater and more conscious effort to ensure that more Americans are on the same page, language-wise.
As an attorney, I have seen and heard of countless workplace abuses and injustices committed, merely because people didn't know English and didn't know where to go for help. Oftentimes, interpreters aren't available and this enhances the prospects that many immigrants face in terms of exploitation and oppression, not only from American, English-speaking employers, but also from members of their own community that may seek to exploit them and capitalize upon their lack of English-language skills.
I think that the right wing is totally insane when they demand that all official business in America be conducted only in English. That said, I think liberals are naive and unrealistic when they argue that the business of government and civil rights can act in an optimum manner without everybody being on the same page in terms of knowledge. Language is the medium through which knowledge is transmitted. And knowledge is power in a democracy. Without knowledge of your legal rights, political rights and economic rights, oppression and exploitation become a constant companion. And language becomes the barrior through which such knowledge is denied to millions.
We must make English-language classes and training more available to all throughout the nation.
I don't know how I feel about America adopting English as the official language of the nation. Some "feel" that it would be used to oppress and persecute people in the way that literacy tests were used to alienate and disenfranchise black voters in the Jim Crow South. Some feel that it bespeaks nativism and xenophobia.
On the other hand, countless nations throughout the world have official languages and none of them are seen as racist or bigoted for having them. India, Jamaica, Singapore, Nigeria, Kenya all list English as an official language. Spanish is the official language of Mexico. I don't know what harm would come about, if it is done correctly, in declaring English as an official language of the United States. Of course, it need not be the ONLY official language.
That said, optimality would be achieved if everybody were on the same page, linguistically speaking, and if all governmental efforts were aimed at bringing this about.
As an attorney, I tell you, there is a great deal of cost and confusion in court when 30% of the defendants can't speak English. Some can spend 15-20 years in this nation and they demand an interpreter. I am a liberal and a progressive and I fully support the need to help the downtrodden, the persecuted and the needy. But I also think that people need to take some initiative and learn English if they have lived in this nation for 20 years.
I am starting to see liberal, progressive judges DENY requests for a translator, in circumstances precisely like these. It gets expensive. Its $400 an hour for a translator.
Its much cheaper for everybody to be on the same page. A lingua franca helps, it adds to a society's cohesion.
Perhaps the best way to resolve the tension between conservatives and liberals would be to choose a third-party, neutral language as the official language and force everybody to learn it? I have no emotional ties to English. Perhaps we can speak Chinese or Russian? Perhaps we can chose Esperanto or Tagalog? It makes absolutely no difference to me.
Some may wonder if it even makes a difference if we have an official language. Maybe not. Eventually the forces of assimilation come into play, along with public schooling, and everybody eventually learns English.
But modern trends are mitigating the "melting pot" theory of language cohesiveness. For example, its alot easier today to remain totally ignorant of English for a long period of time, due to the large nature of many immigrant communities that can survive long periods of time without any contact with the outside, English speaking society around them. Modern electronic, satellite and internet communications facilitate this, as these communities can be in closer connection with their original homeland than they are with their new, adopted one. Its not unheard of in many migrant worker communities, for people to work 15-20 years in the US and never learn English. I understand that there are places in Miami where one can go and not get by without a strong command of Spanish. Same goes true for various Chinatowns throughout the United States and the need for Chinese language skills. Many police departments, child protection agencies, welfare agencies, senior citizen agencies, INS and labor department inspectors and the like find their work in such communities severely hampered, due to linguistic barriers, even when they have members of said communities working on their staffs. As a result, its completely feasible that hundreds if not thousands of cases of neglect and abuse go unreported and un-investigated, due to these linguistic barriers, each year.
Perhaps traditional liberal notions of not having an official language, rather than enhance liberty and freedom, may actually serve to detract from freedom and enhance the powers of oppression, division and alienation, like the leftist Jacobins once thought?
There must be a way to solve this problem in a way that is acceptable to all sides, liberal and conservative alike. We can't have total linguistic anarchy. I like having a diverse nation, but I also understand the linguistic efficiency that can be had by more linguistically homogenous nations, or at least those linguistically diverse nations that settle on a few basic languages as their "lingua franca." For example, India has hundreds of languages spoken within her borders. Its one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse nations on earth. Yet they all share the common history of having been an English colony. For this reason, English is one of the official languages of India, and it greatly facilitates communication among her diverse population groups, especially among the elites in universities, government, banking, science, medicine and the like. In many ways, it serves the same function that Latin served in Europe from the Middle Ages up through the 17th century.
And yet, by that same token, we can't have xenophobic nativists turning the English language into some sort of litmus test by which they "lord it over" everybody else in the nation. And that's the great threat, and great fear that everybody has, whenever we bring up the subject of having an "official language."
The American Experiment is unique. We are a nation of immigrants, from all quarters of the globe. What and who we are is constantly changing. But in order for us to even be a "we" there needs to be some sense of unity, other than shared geographical space. If that's all it takes to be an American, then our national identity isn't long for this world.
Should English be the national language? If not, should both English AND Spanish be the national languages and should we require that everybody learn both of these in school?
I am leaning toward the latter option.This way, Hispanic citizens whose numbers are growing and who will comprise a larger portion of our nation in the future, and whom we can't alienate, don't feel marginalized by our efforts to have unity. Furthermore, English speakers can work toward this unity by learning Spanish, and working toward our Hispanic brothers and sisters, as they simultaneously work toward unity by learning English. Within 50 years, the linguistic issues we now face regarding English-Spanish confusion would thus largely be overcome. Who knows, maybe a new language would come about in a few hundred years, a hybrid born of the two tongues?
The Roman Empire lasted for 1,000 years with both Latin and Greek as its official language. Perhaps we should have two official languages as well?