There is a growing controversy in the United States over whether or not to make English the official language of our country. The English language is, at least for now, the predominant language in the U. S. but there is no authoritative “American” medium of communication nor has there ever been an official U. S. language. Throughout our history many languages and dialects and expressions have been spoken and written along with English but as yet we have not developed an official “American” language.
A language professor of mine at Emory stated that “our” English language can be compared to a patchwork quilt. We have borrowed from other languages across the centuries and “patched” their languages into a hodgepodge communication system of our own design.
The history of the English language is usually, if perhaps too tidily, divided into three periods usually referred to as Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Middle English, and Modern English. The earliest period begins with the migration of certain Germanic tribes from the continent to Britain in the fifth century A. D., though no records of their language survive from before the seventh century, and continues until the end of the eleventh century or a bit later. By that time Latin, Old Norse (the language of the Viking invaders), and especially the Anglo-Norman French of the dominant class after the Norman Conquest in 1066 had begun to have a substantial impact on the lexicon, and the well-developed inflectional system that typifies the grammar of Old English had begun to break down.
As time passed and the language moved through Middle English and into Modern English and came into contact with other cultures around the world and distinctive dialects of English developed in the many areas which Britain had colonized, including the American colonies, the numerous other languages and dialects made interesting contributions to “our” language.
English is the most widely spoken language in the history of our planet, used in some way by at least one out of every seven human beings around the world. Half of the world’s books are written in English, and the majority of international phone calls are made in English. English is the language of over sixty percent of the world’s radio programs. More than seventy percent of international mail is written and addressed in English and eighty percent of all computer text is stored in English. English has acquired the largest vocabulary of all the world’s languages, perhaps as many as two million words, and has generated one of the noblest bodies of literature in the annals of the human race.
Nonetheless, in spite of all the impressive things that the English language has accomplished, it is now time to face the fact that English is a crazy language—the most lunatic and cockamamie and absurd and hair-brained of all languages. In the crazy English language, the blackbird hen is brown, blackboards can be green or some other color, and blackberries are green then red before they are ripe. Even if blackberries are really black and blueberries really blue, what are strawberries, cranberries, elderberries, huckleberries, raspberries, and gooseberries, supposed to look like? - Ad infinitum
Considering all the influences that go into making up our day-to-day communication , we are overwhelmed by “our” own language.
Perhaps American slang and idiomatic vernacular expressions come closer to being genuinely American than the more formal English usage. Slang is unconventional, hard-hitting, metaphorical language that is colloquial, sometimes crude and vulgar, and always innovative—nothing registers change in cultural thought faster or more dramatically than slang. Lexicologist Stuart Berg Flexner defines slang more precisely as “the body of words and expressions frequently used by or intelligible to a rather large portion of the general American public, but not accepted as good, formal usage by the majority.” Linguists Lars Anderson and Peter Trudgill, quote the poet Carl Sandburg: “Slang is a language that rolls ups its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work.” Slang is seen either as a harbinger of hope (especially among the young) or as a threat to what is perceived as “proper” language and society.
Most of us neither speak nor write “proper” English all the time. Our speech is colored by our culture, peer groups and other language altering influences depending on the specific social settings we find ourselves in.
Making proper English, whatever that means, the official language of the U. S. presents a challenge that calls for a tremendous change that I’m not sure all Americans are willing to accept.
In all of this, the most effective communication is that which is understood.