Language, Law, Politics

This is a story that would certainly be generating much bigger waves if it involved a Democrat, rather than a pro-torture (i.e. pro-Gonzales) Republican:

Freshman Sen. Mel Martinez, a Cuban immigrant, shattered a 216-year tradition of the U.S. Senate on Wednesday when he used the ceremonial occasion of his first floor speech to speak three sentences in Spanish.

So unprecedented was the use of a language spoken at home by over 29 million Americans that the Senate stenographer was completely stunned. She just typed speaking Spanish.” (Martinez said that he would provide both English and Spanish transcripts for the senate record.)

There is no law declaring English to be the official language of the Senate, but there have been many attempts to pass such a law. Although the English Only movement has drawn just as many liberal supporters as conservatives, it was adopted as a wedge issue by the Right in 1994:

Seldom did it function as a partisan issue before the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994, when the new majority began to stress bilingualism as a wedge issue to divide Democratic constituencies. The new House leadership pushed through a measure that largely prohibited the use of languages other than English by the federal government. In response, breaking his long silence on English-only legislation, President Clinton threatened a veto, and the bill died without Senate action.

There is a rumor that the United States almost became bilingual in German. While it is true that Pennsylvania used to offer German language schooling and issued public documents in German, it never came close to being a language of the federal government. However, the printing of documents in German was an issue in the early Senate:

On January 13, 1795, the U.S. House of Representatives defeated a bill to print 3,000 sets of the federal laws in German for the accommodation of such German citizens of the United States, as do not understand the English language.” … The decisive vote against bilingual publication was cast by the first Speaker of the House, Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg, a German-American from Pennsylvania, then the state with the largest German population. … (This close congressional vote was apparently the source of myths that German almost became the official language of the United States.) Every year from 1843 to 1847 Congress voted against printing copies of the President’s annual message in Low German, German or French.

But there was hardly an outcry at Martinez’s speech, presented on the occasion of Gonzales’ Senate confirmation. Whatever the cynical partisan politics are behind Bush’s endorsement of Latinos, and the relative silence from formerly pro-English Only Republicans, it is refreshing to have the language of the Senate more accurately reflect the language of our country. After all, I’m sure it isn’t that hard to hire bilingual stenographers!

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