2006-05-18 / Sam Bari

You can't beat a system you can't understand

Freedom of speech
By Sam Bari

Not long ago in this column I alluded to the lack of freedom to speak clearly in this society.

The reason for this shortcoming found in our assumed civil liberties I blame on the emphasis we put on propriety and the incessant pursuit of political correctness, both of which make me gag.

To assure that my penchant for boorishness was duly noted, and if they had their way to severely punish me, the insufferable, overly Googled brainiacs in our research department brought the following long-neglected issue to my attention: all who reside in the United States of America apparently have the right to enjoy the ultimate experience in freedom of speech.

"Why is that?" you ask. It is because we can say whatever we want and correspond in any tongue that we want on a federal level for a simple reason - the country does not have an "official" language. Are you surprised? Well . . don't be. We've never had one, and the possibility of ever getting one appears to be slim. Because of an ongoing battle between a lobbying group called English First and the American Civil Liberties Union, or the ACLU, a bill to make English the official language of the country has been too controversial to be tabled by the vote-sensitive politicos whose job it is to administer the business of this country. Now, I'm sure you are all shocked over that one. I wonder how many people the administration employs to keep this known but seldom publicized fact away from gaining overwhelming national attention. I assume that I won't be invited to the next White House press conference for writing about this. I just can't resist. If Russia, China, England, France, Spain, Italy, and an abundance of other civilized countries find an official language necessary, why are we the exception?

It appears that the burden of declaring "official" languages is the responsibility of individual states. Of the 50 sovereign states, 27 have "official" language laws. All 27 declare English to be their language of choice. Rhode Island is not one of them. Florida has one, despite an estimated 30 percent immigrant population comprised of legal and illegal residents whose mother tongue is other than English. California, another state with a large percentage of immigrant residents, also has an official English language law.

What does this mean? It means that if you are involved in official business with a state that has language laws, like engaging in written or oral correspondence with state personnel or officials, standard English must be used as defined by Webster's dictionary of American English. However, if you're doing business on a federal level, you are governed by a completely different set of rules.

Because the country does not have an "official" language, the president is free to address the nation in Texan, or any other form of any language of the highest official's choice. He can talk about "nucular" issues as much as his heart desires because he is not restricted to any form of the English language, or any other language, as we know it.

Our liberal language policies allow a president from Texas, a senator from New England, another from the deep South, and yet another from the extreme northern region of the country to engage in conversation and make decisions about our future whether they understand each other or not. I don't know about you, but I do not find this comforting.

I fear that other disturbing situations could arise from our lack of language regulation. Without laws governing language, it seems to me that immigration officials could swear in candidates applying for citizenship in their native tongues. Since we don't have an official language, I assume that immigrants cannot be forced to learn English as a requirement for citizenship. We do not have a law to enforce in this area. In any state that doesn't have a language law, it appears that students could do their homework in Sanskrit with impunity if they so desired.

When you stop and think about it, how can we possibly expect a senator from Massachusetts who eats "pizzer," goes fishing for "tuners," drinks "vodker," and "pahks his cah," to agree on anything with a man who thinks "nuclear" is pronounced "nucular," the plural of "y'all" is "all y'all" and pronounces "ribs" as a two-syllable word? It's not gonna happen, folks. That scenario is just pure folly.

Then we have the problem of which form of standard American English is going to be acceptable to all parties. Whom do we accept as the governing body to choose between Webster's definition of American English, New England English, deep Southern, Texan, Californian, and Northern use of the language? Additionally, we have Spanglish, Ebonics, Cajun, and those who live in Hawaii and other Pacific islands, who speak pidgin. Who's going to tell people who order their eggs "sunny-side up side by each" that they are in violation of the language law? Today, students in a language-lawless state could "aks" their teacher a question and not be admonished for incorrect pronunciation if they declared their right to use any language they chose. The situation is more than frustrating; it is absurd. My guess is that it's part of that system we just can't understand.

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