English-only ordinance sets the wrong tone

In the local press, a recent letter to the editor asserted in its first sentence, “English is the official language of the United States.” It isn’t, of course; in fact, our very learned founders deliberately chose not to have any official national language.

When the British settled Jamestown in 1607, they encountered natives who spoke Algonquian, Siouan and Iroquoian – but not English. There are three phrases on the Great Seal of the United States – none of them English. There are three expressions on the Maryland state seal as well – two Latin, one Italian, zero English.

Abraham Lincoln had a White House employee whose job was to read the daily German newspapers and keep the president informed. In the 1870 census, foreign-born residents made up almost 11 percent of the Maryland population (including about 20 percent of state’s military). In Baltimore alone that year, public schools offered bilingual instruction to 7,000 pupils.

I could go on, but you get the idea: English is most emphatically not the official language of the United States. We have a long history of multilingualism here, and that’s what being a melting pot is all about. We’re richer for our diversity, and that includes diversity of language. The Latin motto on our money says “E Pluribus Unum” – one out of many. One nation, many cultures and backgrounds and languages.

Even English isn’t entirely English. It’s German and Greek and Latin, with some French and Arabic thrown in for good measure. To quote James Davis Nicoll, “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

Personally, I enjoy learning languages: I have studied six and taught three in FCPS. I especially adore this one. I love its richness and its ability to surprise. So it pains me to watch it abused – ironically often by the very people who claim to be its staunchest defenders.

“If I got to be robbed, it must be much better that they are worhy?” wrote one commenter on the above-mentioned LTE online. Another wrote, “wrong again liberals, my grandparents and many of my friends grandparents coming from all over Europe wanted to and actually took pride in learning and speaking English.” The virtual absence of apostrophes (and, for some reason, preponderance of semicolons) turned most sentences into incomprehensible mush.

Capitalization? Proofreading? Clearly these English-only folks have no time for such silliness.

The 2012 English-only ordinance in Frederick was always symbolic – it changed nothing and saved no money. But the reason for it, as Blaine Young said at the time, was to make Frederick as unwelcoming as possible to immigrants.

“It sets the tone,” he told reporters after passing the ordinance. “I do not see what the big deal is.”

The big deal is exactly that it does set a tone – and it’s not a tone that most of us want to have associated with our county. So I want to thank county council members Jessica Fitzwater and M.C. Keegan-Ayer for changing that tone. In a week when we saw a movement to do away with the divisive symbol that is the rebel flag, a week when the Supreme Court did away with marriage inequality, it is right to celebrate our diversity here in Frederick County as well.

E pluribus unum indeed.

Council member Fitzwater introduced a bill to repeal the 2012 ordinance declaring English as the official language of Frederick County, with support from the Chamber of Commerce Major Employers Group, the Human Relations Commission, Frederick Immigration Coalition, and more than 200 citizens who signed a petition in favor of repeal.


Frederick News Post article
Bill introduced to repeal Frederick County’s English-only ordinance
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
By Kelsi Loos

Frederick News Post editorial
Repeal the English-only ordinance
Tuesday, June 16, 2015

WHAG (Your4State.com) VIDEO
Frederick County Council Members propose new bill to repeal English-only ordinance
Wednesday, June 17, 2015
by Mallory Sofastaii