Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Mother Tonguers: English is Not the National Language

Thirty years ago Quebec banned all languages but French on commercial signs, including “welcome” and “Merry Christmas.” It required French to be the working language of any business with 50 employees or more, which drove 130 corporations out of the province in a few years. It established a language police and gave it power to levy stiff fines and seize lawbreaking evidence. As The New York Times reported in 1984, that would eventually entail “the taping over the English word ‘street’ on signs; the seizure of 10,000 ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’ bags in 1977, and the prosecution of an English hospital last year for not providing a patient the opportunity ‘to die in French.’” The only thing dying a French death, as a result, is French Canadian — a language so stunted that hearing it is like listening to Beethoven set to Muzak. France’s French is molding the same way if that country’s language tyrants continue to imprison Voltaire’s tongue in the same hushed pantheon where they keep his bones.

How lucky we are in comparison. One of the greatest pleasures of living in the English-speaking world is the language itself. It is the richest in the world, the most imitated, the most borrowed, the most sought after. In China and Japan alone, more people are learning English at any given time than there are people in North America. Among the major languages English is also by far the most accepting of foreign words. “No other language has so many words all saying the same thing,” Bill Bryson notes in “The Mother Tongue,” his wonderful history of the language. Read the rest of the column...