April 20, 2005

English-Only in West Virginia

According to various press reports, the West Virginia state legislature recently passed a bill declaring English the state's official language only to have it vetoed by Governor Joe Manchin III because it violated a provision of the West Virginia constitution that requires each piece of legislation to deal with a single topic. Many legislators did not realize what they had done: the English-only provision snuck by the legislature as a rider on a bill increasing the size of municipal park and recreation boards. Even so, it sounds like it has a fair chance of being reenacted as a separate bill. Governor Manchin favors it, as does Senate Majority Whip Billy Wayne Bailey.

Mr. Bailey is quoted by the Associated Press as explaining:

I just told the members that the amendment clarifies the way in which documents are produced.

Where I come from that is called "lying". I knew that politicians routinely lied to the public; I wasn't aware that it was smart for a Majority Whip to lie to his own caucus.

You'd think that such a bill would be a response to the perception by English speakers that their language was being overwhelmed by others. Here, by way of example, is an editorial by David Gibson advocating Rep. Steve King (R-IA)'s English Language Unity Act, which would make English the official language of the United States. Analysis of the flaws in Mr. Gibson's piece is left as an exercise for the reader. I note only that it contains an error found in most "English only" advocacy, namely the belief that immigrants to the United States from non-English-speaking countries do not wish to learn English and do not do so.

In fact West Virginia has very few speakers of other languages, with only 2.7% of its people speaking a language other than English at home according to the 2000 census. That's the lowest percentage of speakers of other languages in the United States. Its hard to come to any conclusion other than that the motivation for declaring English official is jingoism. Charleston Gazette columnist Phil Kabler put it nicely:

House Judiciary Chairman Jon Amores, D-Kanawha, nailed it when he said (paraphrasing here) that the real intent of the legislation is to send a big up-yours message to non-English-speaking immigrants.

Mr. Kabler laments the fact that West Virginia has been singled out for derision when 28 other states have passed similar legislation, citing a previous incident in which West Virginia was made the butt of jokes when it passed a law allowing people to eat roadkill. I at least have no intention of singling out West Virginia. As far as I'm concerned, West Virginia is merely one of 29 states with an excess of legislators who at best are misguided and at worst are ignorant bigots.

    Posted by Bill Poser at April 20, 2005 12:07 AM