A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did Hebrew almost become the official U.S. language?

January 21, 1994

Dear Cecil:

Some time ago I came upon this little tidbit of info: that during the debates over the United States constitution in the 1780's, disgust for the British was so intense that a proposal was advanced to ditch English and adopt some nice pseudo-dead dialect as the new nation's official language. Is this true? If so, can you confirm that Hebrew was seriously considered as a replacement but came one vote shy of being adopted?

Cecil replies:

Hebrew the national language? Oy, such meshugaas you talk. (And yes, Cecil knows the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish.)

There was some discussion just after the Revolution about switching to a language other than English, but it's not known how serious this was — probably not very.   Nonetheless there's a 150-year-old legend that English was almost replaced, not by Hebrew but by German. Supposedly it lost by one vote, cast by a German-speaking Lutheran minister named Frederick Muhlenberg. Some say the vote took place in the Pennsylvania legislature and that Muhlenberg voted against it because he didn't want Pennsylvania to be isolated from the rest of the nation. Another version, commonly heard in Germany, says the proposal would have passed except that a German-speaking legislator went to the toilet at the crucial moment.

It never happened, of course. In the 18th century German speakers constituted a significant fraction of the population only in Pennsylvania (remember the Pennsylvania Dutch?), and even the most fanatical British haters weren't crazy enough to think they could change the national language by legislative fiat. But the story isn't pure invention. Here's what really happened, courtesy of Dennis Baron, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:

In 1794 a group of German speakers in Virginia petitioned Congress to publish federal laws in German as well as English. The intention was not to supplant English but simply to supplement it. A House committee recommended publishing German translations of the laws, but on January 13, 1795, "a vote to adjourn and sit again on the recommendation" (apparently an attempt to keep the measure alive rather than killing it immediately) failed by a vote of 42-41. Frederick Muhlenberg (1750-1801) was in fact Speaker of the House at the time, but how he voted is unknown. Tradition has it that he stepped down to cast a negative vote, apparently being the German-speaking equivalent of an Oreo. Not that it mattered. The vote was merely procedural; its success would not have guaranteed passage of the measure, and in any case German translations of federal statutes are a far cry from making the German the official language of the U.S. A similar measure came up a month later and was also voted down, as were subsequent attempts in later years.

The Muhlenberg story was widely publicized by Franz Loher in his 1847 History and Achievements of the Germans in America. He wrongly set the event in the Pennsylvania legislature, over which Muhlenberg had previously presided, and also wrongly claimed that Muhlenberg was reviled by his fellow German speakers for selling them out. Germans did get on Muhlenberg's case for later casting the deciding vote in favor of the Jay Treaty, which was viewed as anti-German; his brother-in-law stabbed him and he lost the next election in 1796. Loher conflated this genuine controversy with the trivial language debate and the legend has survived ever since.

The truth is that the U.S. has never had an official language. Several states have declared English official at one time or another, most recently in response 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 before Congress since 1981, and given the country's sour mood it may yet pass. But even if one concedes the usefulness of a common language in unifying the country, one might as well attempt to legislate the weather.

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