Monday, October 20, 2014

One Language under God?

The USA is certainly an exceptional country, indeed it is so exceptional that the National Question is seemingly of no importance whatsoever.  Lesser countries may have to confront their national problems: Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, but the USA?

Only one of the 50 states has an official minority language - Hawaii - but with less than 1% of the population speaking the indigenous tongue that official status would seem to be largely symbolic.  A fifth of the US population speak a hearth language* other than English, but then why should recent immigrants expect any official recognition for the language of a country they have left behind?  According to the US Census Bureau's Community Survey more than 2200 claim Welsh as their hearth language, a figure that sounds as credible as the 22000 Irish and the 1400 Scottish Gaels. It is ridiculous to suggest that these languages or even those more widely spoken like Russian, Chinese or Italian should have official status.

Of course the speakers of Native American languages are not recent immigrants, but there's no official status for any of them either - a total of 374000 being estimated as speaking an indigenous language at home, nearly half of them speakers of Navajo - in Arizona and especially New Mexico where they make up 4% of population.  It's sad to relate that many well-known tribes have less hearth speakers than the figure claimed for the Americanwyr Cymraeg - Blackfoot, Paiute, Mohawk, Seneca, Kiowa, Comanche, Cree, Shawnee, Pawnee etc.

Now there's a final category who are often overlooked - these being folk who speak a European language but whose ancestors never migrated to the United States, rather the United States came, uninvited, to them.

There are a number of French speakers in New England, especially Maine (5%).  Were these people recent migrants to the US from French Canada?  The border between Maine and Canada was not finally agreed until 1842 and it seems safe to assume that some at least of the 18% of the population of Aroostock County who speak French will be descended from folk who never migrated to the USA.  More well-known than the New England French are those of Louisiana, with 3.5% of the state's population speaking the language at home - mainly in a concentrated area, with some parishes having up to 30% of hearth speakers.  Again this national group, including the Acadians expelled from Canada by the British, never migrated to the USA. In recent years, in contrast to the oppressive policies of the earlier 20C, there have been moves to encourage the use of French in Louisiana schools, aided by teachers from Francophone countries.

We hear a lot about the border fence and the problems associated with latino migration to the American South West.  What is often forgotten is that these states were originally part of the Spanish Empire - New Mexico and Arizona joining the Union as recently as 1912.  Texas became a state in 1845 and California in 1850, both as the result of war with Mexico.  I've no idea what continuity there is between the original Spanish speaking population of these areas and the present day, no doubt the majority are more recent migrants; but given the continuous history and the substantial numbers involved  - California 28%, Arizona 21%, New Mexico 28%, Texas 29% - there seems little reason why Spanish shouldn't regain its former status as an official language.

* Hearth language is a useful term from the 19C, meaning the language used by a family in their own home.


Robert Tyler said...

Very interesting post.
There is, however, absolutely no way that there are 22,000 native Irish speakers in the USA however the respondents describe themselves linguistically on US census reports.

radnorian said...

Yes I agree, I thought the Welsh figure was an exaggeration as well. On reflection maybe not - the figure to England in 2011 was just over 8000 but that seems an underestimation, you'd expect something like 20 to 30k