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J U L Y 1 9 9 7
On behalf of the Official English movement, I would like to respond to your April cover story, Should English Be the Law? by Robert D. King.
First let me address the conclusion of King's essay: "We are not even close to the danger point.... Language does not threaten American unity." He prescribes a policy of "benign neglect." Even if we grant his premise that we are not yet in a dangerous situation, it does not make sense to postpone setting a language policy for the United States until we are in the midst of a linguistic crisis -- by then it may be too late. By acting now to make English the official language, Congress may prevent such a crisis from ever occurring.
However, even benign neglect would be preferable to the current policy of active expansion of multilingual government services. One can take a driver's-license exam in twenty languages in Michigan, twenty-three in New York, twenty-five in Massachusetts, and thirty-three in California. And these are only a fraction of the 329 languages spoken in the United States in 1990.
The policy of benign neglect toward language worked for nearly 200 years. But as King himself acknowledges, things began to change about thirty years ago. Extremists began pushing an activist multilingual policy for our government, attacking one of the great unifying factors in our nation's history. Yet in the Orwellian doublespeak that is the official language of the politically correct, it is the movement in favor of a common language that is now called divisive.
Mauro E. Mujica
U.S. English, Inc.
Robert D. King is disingenuous in concluding that "benign neglect is a good policy for any country when it comes to language." The social policies mandating bilingual education, salary differentials, and hiring preferences for bilingual employees, and special services for non-English-speaking people, are anything but benign neglect. These policies, along with affirmative action, multiculturalism, and so forth, are in fact part of the dominant liberal social-engineering paradigm that has been in ascendance for some thirty years in this country.
There is nothing particularly offensive in what Robert D. King says in his recent article. It's what he doesn't say that presents the problem. Nowhere in his piece, for example, do the words "bilingual education" appear. He does not even hint that he is aware that bilingual education threatens to leave more than a million Hispanic youngsters functionally illiterate in English, the language they will need if they are ever to integrate fully into the economic, social, and political mainstream of this society.
I would welcome a policy of "benign neglect" when it comes to language. Ever since the Supreme Court's Lau decision, in 1974, however, the federal government has coerced literally hundreds of school districts into instituting full-fledged native-language-maintenance programs, even when local educators would have preferred to adopt an alternative such as English as a Second Language. The result is a legacy of half-educated children  -- almost all Hispanic  -- who have not learned English as well as they might have precisely because the federal government intervened.
King ignores other federal actions that similarly abuse his rule of benign neglect. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has threatened to withhold millions of dollars in federal housing funds from cities that refuse to print documents in languages other than English. The Voting Rights Act continues to force localities to print foreign-language ballots. Last year the Yuba County, California, registrar of voters complained in congressional testimony that this mandate would cost her constituents nearly $30,000 in 1996. She has received only one request in sixteen years from a constituent seeking foreign-language voting assistance.
With meddlesome policies like these, is it any wonder that so many Americans want to make English their country's official language?
Center for Equal Opportunity
Robert D. King replies:
There is little difference between what my critics want and what I want  -- that every citizen of the United States speak, understand, read, and write English. But there is a gulf of difference between us regarding means. U.S. English thinks that passing a law making English the official language of the country will do the job. I don't. Linguistic history teaches painfully unambiguous lessons about language laws: they are divisive, they are unenforceable, they make people hate each other, they encourage snitches ("Juanita talked Spanish during the break!"). Worse, they don't work.
So what might work? Linda Chavez's letter points the way. If you don't like bilingual official documents (it's not a big issue with me), then repeal the laws that mandated them in the first place. Bilingual education? I've seen school districts in Texas where it works just the way it is supposed to: little kids enter kindergarten speaking no English, and by the second grade everything is in English. But I know of other places where bilingual education continues far too long, where it is ruinously bureaucratized or politicized, where it has become zany (for example, demanding instruction in ancient Aztec, I'm told by a caller on a radio talk show). For me it's empirical, not ideological: if bilingual ed works, great; if it doesn't, change it. But don't pass a national law making English our official language (with unintended but predictably bad consequences) in order to remedy bilingual ballots and bilingual education.
The letters printed here make reasonable points. Most of the others I have received have been overwhelmingly vituperative  -- which reinforces my conviction that only foolish governments mess with an icon of such extraordinary power and intensity as language.
Mark Halpern's defense of usage orthodoxies "A War That Never Ends," March Atlantic) offers my own Atlantic article "Decline of Grammar" December, 1983) as a paradigm of "leave-your-language-alone" descriptivism, along with Steven Pinker's book The Language Instinct. Pinker can speak for himself, but only a willful misreading of my article would lead someone to describe it in this way.
Halpern characterizes my views by saying, "Nunberg objects to the prescriptivist approach on two grounds: it is futile, since language will follow its natural destiny despite all the efforts of the prescriptivists; and it is somehow wrong -- immoral? unethical? -- to try to interfere...." He is right about the first part, dead wrong about the second. As he notes, I did liken prescriptive grammarians to landscape gardeners trying to arrest the processes of continental drift, and I did say that in the long run English will survive whatever abuses its critics complain of. But I went on to argue that this by no means invalidates the prescriptivist program.
Yet it is hard to take comfort in the scholars' sanguine detachment.... It may be that my children will use gift and impact as verbs without the slightest compunction (just as I use contact, wondering that anyone ever bothered to object to it). But I can't overcome the feeling that it is wrong for me to use them in that way and that people of my generation who say "We decided to gift them with a desk set" are in some sense guilty of a moral lapse, whether because they are ignorant or because they are weak. In the face of that conviction, it really doesn't matter to me whether to gift will eventually prevail, carried on the historical tide. Our glory, Silone said, lies in not having to submit to history.
It is hard to see how anyone could read this as a descriptivist credo, and in fact my article defended a reasonable program of language criticism, one sensitive to the complexities of both received opinion and modern linguistic research. Fortunately, it isn't necessary to belabor the point here, since the editors of The Atlantic have thoughtfully made my original article available on the magazine's Web site (www.TheAtlantic.com), where interested readers can compare what I actually said with Halpern's version of it.
Another point is more important, though: it's a remarkable feature of Halpern's article that he discusses no particular examples of grammatical rules or prescriptive dicta, as if the entire controversy could be resolved in the abstract by appeals to first principles -- as if you could make up your mind about language without ever talking about words. In the event, though, the grammar "war" to which his title alludes is not about to be won by aerial bombardment; what's called for is something more like street-to-street combat. Some prescriptive dicta are mere superstitions, as Fowler put it, while others are solidly based in linguistic principle. Some are the manifestations of covert racism and class prejudice, while others embody a conception of the language as an instrument that overcomes these distinctions. Like any form of criticism, prescriptivism is all a matter of making picky and tiresome discriminations.
It's true that one can find the same sort of programmatic oversimplifications in many of the descriptivist linguists whose views Halpern is attacking (in fact, as one reads his article, one is struck by how much his neo-orthodoxy shares with their heterodoxy). The effect is to turn the debate into just another shrill chapter of the culture wars, as people lose sight of all the subtleties that make a critic like Fowler still worth reading. This is the danger I was alluding to in the title of my own article: "The Decline of Grammar" referred not to worsening standards of usage but to the trivialization of modern discussions of the problem. Unfortunately, Halpern's article does little to allay this concern.
Palo Alto, Calif.
Mark Halpern does little to elucidate the complex interrelations between prescriptive grammar and unruly, evolving usage. It would help enormously if he could acknowledge that standards of "correct" grammar evolve along with language itself -- that "good English" in 1997 is not the same as good English in 1597 or, in all probability, good English in 2397. His article also demonstrates the severely limited power of analogies -- his own as well as those he takes up from others -- to resolve complex questions. For the clincher to his prescriptivist argument he gives us a quotation from Samuel Johnson beginning thus: "Tongues [languages], like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration." Can this really be Halpern's own understanding of language change -- perpetual decline staved off only by the efforts of prescriptive grammarians?
Languages don't degenerate, but they do reflect and embody social change. Consider the impact of increased sensitivity to gender issues, as exemplified by discontent with the so-called "generic" pronoun "he," used to refer to both males and females. Usage change has been influenced by art in the form of "s/he" and similar coinages, but nature has provided a sort of grassroots rejection of gender bias: most speakers now regularly (and unselfconsciously) use plural pronominal forms ("they," "them," "their"), which do not specify gender, as in "Everyone should follow their own conscience." The existing situation creates a problem in linguistic etiquette of concern to English teachers and, presumably, technical editors like Halpern, but one's preference in such matters ought not to be glorified by high-toned appeals to "the clarity and richness of communication." The American Heritage Dictionary's lengthy usage note on "he," which concludes with the observation that "the entire question is unlikely to be resolved in the near future," reveals much more about the problematic relations between changing usage and prescriptive grammar than the weary, oversimplified dichotomy that Halpern offers your readers.
Phillip J. Hanse
Jamestown, N. Dak.
Mark Halpern replies:
As Geoffrey Nunberg is well aware, I regard his position on usage as far more complex, interesting, and therefore dangerous than that of the simple leave-the-language-alone school.
He objects that I offer no examples of "grammatical rules or prescriptive dicta"; he is missing my point. My article is an attack on the claims of linguistic scholars to a privileged place at the table where usage decisions are made, not a plea for any particular rules or an argument that rules in general will save us. Rules have their uses, but only for the already literate; in the absence of a foundation of taste and judgment, rules may do more harm than good ("the wise man points at the stars; the fool looks at his finger").
While asking me to offer concrete examples in support of a position I do not hold, Numberg fails to support his own main contention: that linguistic science can settle or at least shed much light on usage issues. What linguists can often do is demolish the pretensions to scholarship of "pop grammarians" or "mavens" when they are so foolish as to try to buttress their judgments on usage with their usually skimpy and obsolete stock of linguistic knowledge. But once the linguists have done that demolition work and the dust has settled, the usage issues remain -- and linguistic science does nothing to settle them.
Phillip Hanse is correct in stating that I did "little to elucidate the complex interrelations between prescriptive grammar and unruly, evolving usage." It was no part of my intention to do so. If it would "help enormously" for me to acknowledge that the standards of good usage change as time goes by, I will gladly do so -- in fact I did just that when I wrote, "The rules we [prescriptivists] propose will need continual review and revision."
Mr. Hanse wants me to understand the "severely limited power of analogies ....to resolve complex questions." I don't think analogies have any power to resolve complex or even simple questions -- they can only illuminate and clarify issues. The analogies that I discussed were all introduced by Nunberg and Pinker, not by me; my sole concern with them was to point out that they support my position, not their authors'.
My final quotation from Samuel Johnson was not meant to clinch my argument -- it has nothing to do with my main argument in fact -- but is there only to show that Pinker was wrong in presenting Johnson as a champion of his position.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1997; Letters to the Editor; Volume 280, No. 1; pages 6-11.