May 19, 2006

What does "official" mean?

The problem with nitpicking over whether a particular piece of legislation makes English "official" is that being "official" has no well-defined meaning. Some countries make a distinction in their legislation. For example, Switzerland has three "official" languages (French, German, and Italian) but four "national" languages (the foregoing plus Romantsch). Swiss legislation specifies various ways in which a language that is merely "national" rather than "official", in practice just Romantsch, has a somewhat second class status. The distinction made in Switzerland, however, is not necessarily carried over in other uses of terms like "official" and "national". elsewhere. In the Northwest Territories, for example, several native languages have "official" status along with English and French, but their status is in fact not the same. There is, for example, no legal right to receive one's education in a native language.

There are uses of "official language" that are apparently outside the scope of the Inhofe amendment. It evidently does not envision denying the status of legal instrument to documents written in languages other than English. But denying US citizens the legal right to receive government services in any language other than English certainly comes close enough to what "official" means in many contexts for it to be quite legitimate to say that the Inhofe amendment makes English the official language of the United States.

Posted by Bill Poser at May 19, 2006 03:15 AM