May 20, 2006

Attorney General caught in linguistic snare!

Confusion reigned on Friday over the Senate vote on separate amendments to the immigration reform bill declaring English the "national language" on the one hand and the "common and unifying language" on the other. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), sponsor of the "national language" amendment, belittled the softer alternative, saying "You can't have it both ways." But White House spokesman Tony Snow said President Bush supports both amendments, agreeing with the two dozen senators (on both sides of the aisle) who voted for the two measures.

Unfortunately, no one filled in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who was in Houston meeting with state and local officials about the enforcement of immigration laws. "The president has never supported making English the national language," Gonzales said after the meeting. "I don't see the need to have legislation or a law that says English is going to be the national language." The White House was forced to backpedal from Gonzales' remarks later in the day, explaining that Bush doesn't believe English should be the "official" language, though "national" is OK. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino clarified:

"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."

Everyone clear now? The word from the White House is: "national" good, "common and unifying" also good, "official" bad. Even if the binding force of the "national language" amendment is tantamount to treating English as "official," that word is still apparently off-limits. Too bad no one told the Attorney General about this fine-grained distinction.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at May 20, 2006 10:07 AM