Monday, June 11, 2007

The McCain mutiny [updated]

Bill Poser at Language Log tips his hat to John McCain for his reasonable stand regarding English as the official language of the United states.

In the Republican debate (6/5/07) Wolf Blitzer posed the following invitation:

If there's someone here who doesn't believe English should be the official language of the United States please speak up right now.

In this debate McCain is the only one out of ten that takes the stance. Blitzer notes that in the Democratic debate only one of the eight candidates thought that English should be the official language.

I'm not sure how to read the chuckling at this prompt. Perhaps the candidates see it as simple baiting. Perhaps they're nervous because they know how controversial the issue is. McCain offers the following.

I think it's fine.

I would like to remind you that we made treaties with Native Americans such as the Navajos in my state, where we respect their sovereignty. And they use their native language in their deliberations. It's not a big deal. But Native Americans are important to me in my state.

Everybody knows that English has to be learned if anyone ever wants to move up the economic ladder. That is obvious. And part of our legislation by the way is a requirement to learn English.

McCain's opening line is ambiguous. What is fine? Not making English the official language? This is one of those yes/no negative 'solicitations' that can make the yes/no answer confusing. But his answer give some assurance that he sees no need to make an official statement about official languages. He seems to understand that language issues will often take care of themselves as organized cultures learn to function harmoniously.

I appreciate that Blitzer does not open the floor to the eager opposing views. Not because the debate should never be allowed--but because the debate isn't part of the topic. Nice way to stick with the interests of the premise.

Relevant comments begin around 3:30 into the video (or around -6:30 in the countdown).

Responding to the ambiguity in McCain's opening, Bill poser writes:

Hmm, that's true. I think that I may have interpreted McCain's first sentence as meaning something like "I think things are fine as they are." but it isn't clear whether that is really what he meant.

He directed me to this site where Matt Welch disputes the claim in the Washington Post that all ten candidates "endorsed English as the nation's official language."

Welch adds

Wolf Blitzer then asked "Is there anyone else who stands with Senator McCain specifically on that question?" Later, McCain pointed out that in Arizona, "Spanish was spoken before English was."

McCain in fact has been an outspoken opponent to English-as-official-language for decades; I have in my possession letters back and forth between him and Barry Goldwater where he defends his position from the old man's strong desire to codify federally our one national tongue....



  1. As for me (Bachelor of Arts in English from Union College 2004), I was confused by Wolf's set-up. He cited the previous evening, where 1 of 8 thought English should be the official language, and then asked if any of the ten felt the opposite.

    So in preparation for his question, he points to a question he asked the previous day that is the exact opposite of the question he asks. No wonder someone who seems to be alright with English being the official language spoke up, when Blitzer was looking for the opposite.

    Then again McCain quickly jumped into some boilerplate from his immigration policy, so he might have turned a prompt like: "If anyone here can forgive Pol Pot his mistakes, please speak up." into boilerplate on immigration.

  2. So you hear "I think it's fine" as support for Official English.

    I kinda hear that too but that turns the rest of his answer (up to the immigration stuff) into a retreat. I think I'd paraphrase his answer this way:

    Official would be fine, but in my experience it's not necessary.

  3. You're right that his words aren't a diktat for English, but the tone is still more positive than you'd expect for someone speaking up who "doesn't believe English should be the official language." Maybe that he was positive at all, pushed my impression of his answer to the extreme. Plus the bit about legislating the requirement to learn English could mean, "Why not make it official? We're already making laws for it."


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