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Was German almost the official language of the U.S.?

  • Brad Browne/special to The TIMES NEWS A group of Old Order Mennonite women meet in front of a church before the service begins. Until the early 20th century, German was the language spoken in Lancaster County, Pa.
    Brad Browne/special to The TIMES NEWS A group of Old Order Mennonite women meet in front of a church before the service begins. Until the early 20th century, German was the language spoken in Lancaster County, Pa.
Published February 05. 2011 09:00AM

Is there an official language of the United States?

Following the American Revolution from England, most Americans spoke English, which became the de facto language of official government publications, but English never became the official language of the United States.

There were some that thought that to further separate America from its former British overlords, the U.S. should adopt an official language other than English.

Several languages had been bandied about either as a primary or as a secondary official language. These include: Hebrew, Greek, Spanish, American English (as opposed to British English) and German.

In 1774, when representatives of the 13 British colonies met at the Continental Congress, there were discussions to separate the colonies not only politically, but also by language. Soon the revolution began, and the discussions on an official language, remained simply as discussions, or did they?

In the Dimmick Memorial Library is a copy of the 1982 book, Ripley's Believe It or Not Book of Chance, and in it is an article, "The Most Important Vote Ever Cast."

It reads, "In 1774, to make separation of the colonies from England more emphatic it was proposed in the American Continental Congress that the official language of the new political entity be changed from English to German.

"Twenty-seven members of the congress voted for, and 27 voted against, this proposal. Frederick Muhlenberg broke the tie by casting a negative vote. Believe it or not."

Should we believe it, or not? Could it be true? If it was true, would it have changed history? For instance, would the U.S. have supported Germany in the world wars?

First, who was Frederick Muhlenberg?

Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg was a Pennsylvania Lutheran pastor who served as the first Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. He was the great grandson of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the patriarch of the Lutheran Church in America and the namesake of Muhlenberg College in Allentown. Although of German descent, he was not fluent in German.

Muhlenberg represented Pennsylvania, home to a population of German descent. In 1880, German was the everyday speech of about 750,000 people in the U.S.

In Lancaster County, people spoke only German. As ill-feelings towards Germany arose in the U.S. during the World War 1 era, these Germans, or Deutsch, rebranded themselves as "Pennsylvania Dutch."

In the period following the American Revolution, in 1794, German-language farmers in Augusta County, Virginia petitioned the U. S. House of Representatives to publish federal laws in German as well as English "for the accommodation of such German citizens of the United States, as do not understand the English language."

The intention was not to supplant English but simply to supplement it.

This led to a House committee recommending publishing German translations of the federal laws, but on January 13, 1795, "a vote to adjourn and sit again on the recommendation" failed by a vote of 42-41.

Frederick Muhlenberg was now in his second term as Speaker of the House. How he voted on this procedural vote is unknown. Some say that he stepped down to cast a negative vote. Some sources suggest that he abstained. Still others say that he was in the rest room when it happened.

Following the vote, Muhlenberg was quoted as stating, "The faster the Germans become Americans, the better it will be."

The House finally approved publication of current and future federal statutes in English only. The bill was agreed to by the Senate, and signed by President George Washington.

The inaccurate Muhlenberg vote was referenced in the 1847 book, History and Achievements of the Germans in America by Franz Loher, who wrongly set the event in the Pennsylvania legislature, over which Muhlenberg had previously presided.

The U.S. has never had an official language. Several states have declared English as their official language at one time or another, most recently as a reaction to the influx of Spanish speakers. The so-called English Language Amendment (ELA) to the U.S. Constitution, which would give English official status, has been languishing in Congress since 1981.

English is the de facto national language of the United States, with 82 percent of the population claiming it as a mother tongue, and some 96 percent claiming to speak it "well" or "very well."

Spanish is the second most common language in the country, and is spoken by over 12 percent of the population. The top 10 languages spoken in the U.S. are: English, Spanish, Chinese, French, German, Filipino, Vietnamese, Italian, Korean and Russian.

The following states have declared English as the official language: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming. Pennsylvania does not have an official language.

In 1839, Pennsylvania and Ohio, because of their large German-American populations, sanctioned German as an official alternative language of instruction in schools. This lasted until the outbreak of World War I when it was dropped due to anti-German sentiment.

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