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Adventures In Semantics: English As A National -- Not Official -- Language

Parsing the meaning of congressional amendments is often an exercise best reserved for those with law degrees. So if, like me, you don't have one, you might have also been somewhat confused about last week's news that the Senate had approved a measure that would make English the national language. As you might have learned by now, that is very different from making English the official language of the United States, primarily because calling English the official language would, you know, actually have an impact on policies. And knowing the difference between measures that actually yield results, and those that are pretty much extended exercises in public relations, sometimes hinges on one word.

So, when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told reporters the day after the amendment passed that "The president has never supported making English the national language," the White House had to make a statement later that day to clarify Gonzales' words – since the president did actually support English as a national language. Said spokesperson Dana Perino: "The attorney general got caught in a linguistic snare. He took 'national' language to mean what we describe as 'official' language. We have no problem in identifying English, our common linguistic currency as a national language; we also view it more expansively as the 'common and unifying language,'" Reuters reported.

By Sunday, however, it appeared that Gonzales had been fully briefed on the difference between English as the "official" language vs. the "national" language. Bob Schieffer asked him about the issue on "Face the Nation":

Schieffer: One of the things that the Senate did last week was pass this bill that makes English the official language of the United States. In the past, the president has never thought that was a very good idea. It's my understanding, he wants everybody to speak English, we all understand that, when they're coming into this country. Do you think it was a good idea to pass that bill?

Mr. Gonzales: I'm not--I'm not sure that they passed a bill that said it's the official language. I think it was language that, that English is the national language, it is the common unifying language, which, of course, is absolutely true. English is the common unifying language in our country. I also believe it's very, very important for people to speak English, it is the path to opportunity. When I travel around the country and talk to Hispanic groups, I emphasize the fact that English represents freedom in our country. So it is certainly the fact that English is the national language, everything confirms that.

What the president has opposed in the past is having English be the official language or English--or this notion of English-only. The president does not support that, or at least has not supported that in the past. My reading of the language that was passed by the--by the Senate is that these amendments would not have an effect on any existing rights currently provided under federal--under federal law. And so I think that these are very--these are symbolic, primarily. Symbols can be important, and are important, particularly when you're talking about, about America and America's heritage and history and tradition. But in terms of ultimately what we will support or not support, it's--we'll have to wait to see how the list is processed, I'm told.

Um, OK. So this would make English the "common unifying language" in our country. But it won't have any effect on any actual laws or anything like that. Right? Sort of. The New York Times sought to clarify the whole issue a bit more in the "Week In Review" section on Sunday: "The Senate amendment includes a general call for the government to 'preserve and enhance the role of English,' and supporters said it would not lead to the dismantling of regulations concerning bilingualism." Seems uncontroversial enough. Apparently not: "But opponents say another clause, which declares that no one has the right to demand that government services be provided in any language other than English, could open the door to discrimination."

But as far as the broad impact of English as our national language goes, a professor who specializes in the sociology of language told The Times, finally:

"A national language is very different from an official language policy," said April Linton, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego who specializes in the sociology of language. Designating a national language, she said, "recognizes it as part of a national culture and not something enforced in terms of education or government."

An official language law, on the other hand, "can have real consequences for policies," Ms. Linton said.

So keep your eyes peeled for the "official" word on this one.
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