Language doesn’t require legislation

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated columnist

For its next trick, maybe the Senate will pass a law regulating the flight patterns of houseflies.

That would be about as effective as something senators passed Thursday. The measure, an amendment to the immigration bill under debate, designates English the “national language” of these United States. Of course, that and $6.50 will get you into a matinee showing of “The Da Vinci Code.” In other words, the measure is practically meaningless — and would be even if it forbade the government from printing ballots and other forms in languages other than English, which it does not.

You cannot, in a free society, legislate language. Pass a law or don’t: either way, it would not stop Telemundo from broadcasting or El Nuevo Herald from publishing. It would not change the signs on Florence Avenue in Los Angeles from espanol to ingles. And it would not stop people from chatting on the elevator in Spanish. Or French. Or Tagalog.

It also wouldn’t stop businesses and manufacturers from affixing instructions and labels on their products in two languages and even three. The business community, its eye on the bottom line, recognizes a reality many of us are still in denial about: Change is here. And it cannot be gainsaid.

Language is organic. It evolves and spreads pretty much of its own accord. And you can regulate that process to about the same degree you can regulate the ocean. Even as we speak, France is discovering this, via a quixotic campaign to protect the French language from the encroachments of globalization. They have put the force of law behind a crusade to make French men and women stop saying, among other things, “e-mail” (the preferred term is “courriel”).

One wonders how many French businesspeople have obediently stopped using the globally understood English term. Not many, I would bet.

France is motivated by a fear that its language is becoming impure. Our fear is that language is making us disunited. Indeed, many of the 63 senators who voted for this new measure probably did so with that Spanish-language rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” still ringing in their ears. As Sen. Jeff Sessions, Republican from Alabama put it; the amendment “will help unify us as a nation.”

After which, Spider Man and the Easter Bunny will help us win the War on Terror.

Point being, it’s an understandable misconception that common language equals unity, but it’s a misconception nonetheless. Regionalisms and dialects notwithstanding, blacks and whites have been speaking English at each other for 387 years. It has not noticeably unified them. The same holds true for North and South, gays and straights, blue states and red.

Counterintuitive though it may seem, the ability to more efficiently communicate does not of itself lead — pardon my French — to rapprochement. A historian told me once about how observers were amazed the United States could descend into Civil War when the telegraph made it possible for both sides to communicate in real time.

They didn’t realize that sometimes the ability to more efficiently communicate only allows you to more efficiently disagree.

So what does unite nations? For some, it’s common blood. For us, it’s common values and truths held self-evident, like liberty and justice for all. That’s it. That’s the only tie that binds. Yet that slender tie and the idealism it bespeaks must still carry some cachet, else we would not have so many people around the world aching and aspiring to be us.

From where I sit, the nativist impulse to defend English is silly: Does anyone really think the language is going away? Worse, there is something in it that feels desperate and fearful and frankly, troubling, especially to the degree that it compromises the aforementioned tie that binds.

That tie is worthy of a spirited defense. The language, I think, can take care of itself.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: