Guest Column

Common Groound and the English Only Movement

By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

Almost 18 years ago, en route to the Arizona Capitol during the October 22, 1988 march against the English Only Proposition, I was struck by the fallacies and inconsistencies persistent in the arguments of those pressing for its adoption. The English Only law was passed but later declared unconstitutional. And here we are in the year 2005 still beset by those same arguments for English Only laws.

As a professor of English (now retired), I am not surprised by how little Americans really know about their language and its linguistic roots. For in the strictest sense of the word it’s not English that we speak in the United States but "American," as H. L. Mencken correctly described it more than 60 years ago. And the American language is a mélange of tongues brought to this country by its non-native citizens. When the country was first organized after the War of Independence, there existed a mélange of languages spoken by the new Americans. German was so popular at the time that it vied for contention as the language of choice.

That notwithstanding, to institutionalize "English" as the official language of the country (or of Arizona) is to fossilize its growth, to fence it inside boundaries that would stifle its linguistic evolution. But fortunately, as much as one might seek that institutionalization, in the end that effort will prove futile. For languages are like consenting adults: they will "socialize"and produce linguistic issue, borrowing, cross coinages and blends of words that enrich vocabulary and meaning and life in a pluralistic world.

Be that as it may, only the most flawed kind of logic suggests that language is the glue of unity among a people. If that were so, then there should be no strife in Ireland or the Middle East or the Soviet Union or where internecine conflict rages between people who speak the same language. It is more than language that creates national character or national unity. More than anything it is "respect for individual differences" that strengthens national purpose. When the rights of individuals re subordinated to conformity, that way trouble lies. Conformity ne’er built democracy.

But I’m troubled by the minions of the English Only Movement who insist that rational debate on the merits of the English Only Movement are possible independent of the attitudes which brought it into being. That argument is much like one used by a defense attorney pleading leniency for his juvenile client (who murdered his parents) on grounds that being an orphan his client deserved consideration of the court on that score.

Stanley Diamond, one of the early proponents of English Only bruits about the"real issues" of the English Only Movement, which is like saying that one can (or could) talk about the "real issues" of German economic reconstruction during the 1930's independent of the anti-Semitism that gave rise to the attitudes underlying the tenets of that reconstruction. Put another way, it’s like insisting on an assessment of Hitler as a good leader, independent of the holocaust.

Indeed John Tanton, one of Diamond’s supporters issued a memo supporting English Only that "tainted" the issue, just as Hitler’s anti-Semitism tainted the issues in Nazi Germany. That is why John Tanton and Stanley Diamond were the crux of the issue in the English Only Movement of the 80's.

The English Only Movement today cannot beg the question. Public scrutiny will reveal it for what it is--another Aryan manifestation in sheep’s clothing. Those of us who oppose the English Only Movement do not have to conjure up a series of perceived horrors as attorney Jim Henderson would have us believe. Arizona Attorney General Bob Corbin was right when he pointed out that the trouble with the English Only Proposition is mean-spirited in design, as Senator DeConcini correctly pointed out, and racist in intent as many of us have perceived from the beginning.

One wonders if perhaps a comment by the Supreme Court Justices after ruling on the infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson case in 1896 might not have been: "This isn’t what it looks like. All we’re saying is that it’s alright to separate the races, provided we do it equitably." Where was the "common sense" then that Chuck Coughlin assures us will prevail in the future" As we all know, in the heat of the night common sense loses ground at times.

Both Henderson and Coughlin are adept at ad-hominem arguments: when your own position is shaky, attack the character of the opponent. That tack is certainly not "debating the issues" of the English-only Proposition as they devoutly wish.

Which brings us to an important consideration. There are really two issues embedded in the brouhaha over State Representative Russell Pearce’s Proposition to make English the official language of Arizona: (1) an historical issue and (2) an ideological issue. Both have emotional roots and both are oftentimes severely misunderstood if not understood at all.

The ideological roots of Pearce’s proposition spring from a lexocentrism (linguistic chauvinism) that has historically pitted English against Spanish. The Black Legend is one outcome of that ideological conflict. Manifest Destiny, another--fomenting the U.S. war against Mexico in 1846 and against Spain in 1898.

Closer to our time, however, American ideology has dressed itself with the garments of Anglo values that took root early in America’s Atlantic seaboard. The primacy of the English language in the United States is of relatively recent origin. The states of early-day America were a polyglot assortment of people, all eventually finding common ground in the English language, not because it was the language of unification but because it was the lingua franca between them, the koine of common parlance. Consensus is what generated the primacy of the English language in the United States, not coercion. But, as I have already mentioned, the U.S. "English" language has been transformed into an American language whose vitality lies in the rich linguistic diversity of its people. All Americans, including Hispanics of the United States, understand the value and necessity of learning the "language of the country" in order to improve their lot and to carry out their civic functions.

The ideological roots of the English Only Movement create difficulty in determining what exactly its proponents expect it to do or want it to do--apart from what appears to be some inevitable outcomes of its passage. The Anglocentric roots of U.S. English and of its worthy English First ally raise once more the ideological stranglehold that English language and culture has had in the United States, never mind that the country’s population is more than 85 percent non-English.

This phenomenon illustrates well how a language captures people and develops a mentality, a mind-set from a linguistic template. This is not a pejoration of the English language or a diminution of its significance in American life and culture. On the contrary--the phenomenon attests to its strength.

But in the United States that strength draws principally from the linguistic mix the language is subjected to in the Americanization process its citizens undergo. That mix is an annealing process, tempering the country’s language to fit the needs of its citizens in place and time.

In the 18th century Samuel Johnson sought to certify the English language, that is, keep it from "deteriorating" as he perceived. He succeeded in creating the beginnings of English dictionaries but failed miserably in halting the "deterioration" of the English language as a consequence of his work. He failed because language is like a living organism whose evolution is inextricably linked to the evolution of humankind and of speech.

The historical issue which receives little attention but which is embedded in the English-only Movement has to do with the native peoples of the United States and their languages. Per the objectives of the English Only advocates the languages of American Indians would be imperiled. What would happen to the languages of Native Hawaiians? What would the status of Spanish be in Puerto Rico? What about the Spanish language of the Southwest? Place names of the region attest to an Hispanic presence prior to the arrival of Americans from elsewhere in the country. A great number of Hispanics in the American Southwest have long roots in the area. One part of my mother’s family, for example, arrived in San Antonio Texas, in 1731. That predates the Declaration of Independence by some 45 years. A hundred years later members of that family fought for Texas Independence. Since 1848--when by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo more than half of Mexico was dismembered and annexed by the United States--members of my family have fought and died for the American flag and its causes.

Hispanics are not newcomers to the American experience . . . they are part of that experience. Hispanic children learn about John Smith, the Mayflower, and Ellis Island. But they also learn that their forebears were not part of that experience. For that is not the only history of Americans in the United States.

All American children ought to learn as Hispanic children of the Southwest and Puerto Rico learn that the American experience has a different form in those areas. As it does in Hawaii. And as it does where Asian Americans and African Americans came into the country.

The United States is not just a land of immigrants. The preponderance of African Americans are not immigrants to the United States. Puerto Ricans are not immigrants to the United States. Asians from Hawaii are not immigrants to the United States. By and large, Mexican Americans are not immigrants to the United States. The United States came to them. To impose by force of fiat the conqueror’s language upon them is not the way to win friends and influence people--especially when "they" have already learned the language of the country.

The agenda of the English Only advocates is dark and sinister, full of sound and fury auguring turmoil for the country. The begining of fascism takes many forms. In Nazi Germany it was the Jews. Are Hispanics to be scapegoats for American fascism?

It’s surprising how people are ready to give up their freedoms in the name of "unity," how they are ready to replace one tyranny with another, as described in George Orwell’s superb fable, Animal Farm. The lessons of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Cuba ought not to be lost on us. The Russification of the Soviet Union--establishing the primacy of the Russian language in all the jurisdictions of the Soviet Union–did not work. Not because the ethnic peoples of the Soviet Union with all their linguistic diversity opposed the Russian language, but because the proponents of Russian Only opposed all other language in their domain.

The issues of language are not easy, any more than the issues of culture are not easy. What makes the issue of language particularly difficult is that language lies at the core of one’s existence, it is the primary vehicle by which one mediates the world about one. Therefore to attack the language one speaks is to attack the very heart of one’s existence. That’s why helping people bridge from one language to another is so important.

People should not be made to feel that they must give up one linguistic identity to become members of another linguistic group. We have surely progressed to the point where we understand that the Americanization process ought to be an additive one. That, in this case, to become an American is to add the American language to one’s linguistic repertoire.

As Hamlet muses during the play within the play: This is mischief badly done. English Only propositions are acts full of mischief and mean-spiritedness. It is not an act by which we shall all come together but an act that will surely divide us as a people where no division now exists and where none should. English Only propositions will bestow to our heirs a legacy of discord. That is not what Arizona nor the country needs at the onset of the 21st century.

The United States is not what it was 200 years ago. It will not be in 200 years what it is now. It will be, we can hope, the bastion of democracy and the refuge of people seeking liberty as it was in the beginning and as it has been into our time. The United States belongs to its people: the Marshalls, the Blackmuns, the O’Connors, the Scalias, the Singhs, the Renquists, the Garcias, etc. It does not belong to the English, the Italians, the Irish, the Africans, the Hispanics. It belongs to all of us who are American citizens at this moment in time. Our American patrimony cannot be bought, nor can it be sold.

I daresay, should the English-only mentality become national dogma, American Hispanics will not wait three-score years for another Brown Vs. Board of Education decision to free them from linguistic shackles. They will not go gently into that good night. Nor should they. Hispanics have a history of fighting for American freedoms.


Dr. Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature Retired Tenured Faculty, Texas State University System--Sul Ross English, Linguistics, Journalism, Information Studies, Bilingual Education, Chicano Studies. Dean Emeritus, Hispanic Leadership Institute, Arizona State University Chair Emeritus, The Hispanic Foundation, Washington DC.  Visiting Scholar and Lecturer in English and Bilingual Studies,72Texas A&M University at Kingsville -- Email: or