May 19, 2006

English: official, national, common, unifying, or other?

Has the United States Senate really voted for "official English," as Bill Poser writes? The situation's a bit more complicated than that, as suggested by the AP headline, "Senate sends mixed signals on English." Senators have not actually weighed in on whether English should be made the nation's "official" language, though a House bill along these lines is said to have strong support. Rather, the Senate considered two amendments to the immigration reform act which proposed modifiers to "English" not quite as forceful as that magic word "official."

The first amendment, sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), is intended to "preserve and enhance the role of English as the national language of the United States of America." The amendment passed by an overwhelming vote of 62 to 35, with 10 Democrats joining 52 Republicans in support. This is evidently the first time in history that the Senate has identified English as the "national" language, if not the "official" language. According to various news accounts, Inhofe had originally wanted to use the word "official" but changed it to "national" to draw more support for the amendment. The Chicago Tribune reports that for Official English proponents, the choice of adjective didn't actually matter very much. Tim Schultz, director of government relations of U.S. English Inc., is quoted as saying, "We don't care. We think it's basically the same thing. It's a 'You say potato, I say potahto' kind of thing."

For those on both sides of the debate, what was clearly more important than the cosmetic choice of adjective was the amendment's "teeth": its unprecedented insistence that unless otherwise authorized "no person has a right, entitlement or claim" to obtain government services in a language other than English. Many Democrats were harsh in their assessment: Minority Leader Harry Reid said, "While the intent may not be there, I really believe this amendment is racist. I think it's directed basically at people who speak Spanish."

Immediately after the vote on Inhofe's amendment came another vote, this time for a less binding amendment to the immigration bill sponsored by Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO). The purpose of Salazar's amendment was "to declare that English is the common and unifying language of the United States, and to preserve and enhance the role of the English language." Inhofe scoffed at the followup amendment, saying, "You can't have it both ways." Apparently, to Inhofe's way of thinking, English can be either "national" or "common and unifying," but not both. From an outsider's perspective this might seem slightly insane, but it makes perfect sense in the context of congressional party politics. The "common and unifying" measure was, to Inhofe, a weak Democratic response to declaring English the "national" language, since "national" is now supposed to be taken as a code word for "official," softened to placate moderates.

The moderates, however, did want to "have it both ways." A total of 23 senators who voted for Inhofe's amendment (roughly split between Republicans and Democrats) crossed over and voted for Salazar's amendment too. This allowed the bill to pass by a margin of 58 to 39. So the Senate has now told us that English should be recognized as "national," "common," and "unifying," though less than two dozen senators liked all three of those adjectives.

Here's the breakdown of the vote so American readers can know on which side of the adjectival divide their elected representatives stand:

English is national, not common & unifying (39: 39R, 0D) English is common & unifying, not national (35: 1R, 33D, 1I) English is national and common & unifying (23: 13R, 10D)
Alexander (R-TN) Akaka (D-HI) Baucus (D-MT)
Allard (R-CO) Bayh (D-IN) Brownback (R-KS)
Allen (R-VA) Biden (D-DE) Byrd (D-WV)
Bennett (R-UT) Bingaman (D-NM) Carper (D-DE)
Bond (R-MO) Boxer (D-CA) Chafee (R-RI)
Burns (R-MT) Cantwell (D-WA) Coleman (R-MN)
Burr (R-NC) Clinton (D-NY) Collins (R-ME)
Chambliss (R-GA) Dayton (D-MN) Conrad (D-ND)
Coburn (R-OK) Dodd (D-CT) DeWine (R-OH)
Cochran (R-MS) Domenici (R-NM) Dorgan (D-ND)
Cornyn (R-TX) Durbin (D-IL) Graham (R-SC)
Craig (R-ID) Feingold (D-WI) Hagel (R-NE)
Crapo (R-ID) Feinstein (D-CA) Johnson (D-SD)
DeMint (R-SC) Harkin (D-IA) Lincoln (D-AR)
Dole (R-NC) Inouye (D-HI) McCain (R-AZ)
Ensign (R-NV) Jeffords (I-VT) Murkowski (R-AK)
Enzi (R-WY) Kennedy (D-MA) Nelson (D-FL)
Frist (R-TN) Kerry (D-MA) Nelson (D-NE)
Grassley (R-IA) Kohl (D-WI) Pryor (D-AR)
Gregg (R-NH) Landrieu (D-LA) Snowe (R-ME)
Hatch (R-UT) Lautenberg (D-NJ) Specter (R-PA)
Hutchison (R-TX) Leahy (D-VT) Voinovich (R-OH)
Inhofe (R-OK) Levin (D-MI) Warner (R-VA)
Isakson (R-GA) Lieberman (D-CT)
Kyl (R-AZ) Menendez (D-NJ)
Lott (R-MS) Mikulski (D-MD) Not voting (3: 2R, 1D)
Lugar (R-IN) Murray (D-WA) Bunning (R-KY)
McConnell (R-KY) Obama (D-IL) Martinez (R-FL)
Roberts (R-KS) Reed (D-RI) Rockefeller (D-WV)
Santorum (R-PA) Reid (D-NV)
Sessions (R-AL) Salazar (D-CO)
Shelby (R-AL) Sarbanes (D-MD)
Smith (R-OR) Schumer (D-NY)
Stevens (R-AK) Stabenow (D-MI)
Sununu (R-NH) Wyden (D-OR)
Talent (R-MO)

Thomas (R-WY)

Thune (R-SD)

Vitter (R-LA)

[Late update: Initial reports of the Senate vote had Mary Landrieu (D-LA) voting for the Inhofe amendment, but the final tally shows her in the "nay" column.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at May 19, 2006 01:43 AM