Thursday, September 12, 2013

How American became the official language of Illinois

Washington J. McCormick, a former lawyer with degrees from Harvard and Columbia, was elected to the United States Congress in 1921 to represent the great state of Montana. But when McCormick failed to win re-election in 1922, he decided to spend his lame duck months proposing unpopular legislation, and as a Republican with a strong independent streak, Representative McCormick proposed that these United States of America adopt American as its official language. As quoted in The Nation, he argued:
Drop your swagger-sticks: Representative
W. J. McCormick of Montana's 1st District is in town.
Image credit: Wikipedia and Library of Congress
I might say I would supplement the political emancipation of '76 by the mental emancipation of '23. America has lost much in literature by not thinking its own thoughts and speaking them boldly in a language unadorned with gold braid. It was only when Cooper, Irving, Mark Twain, Whitman, and O. Henry dropped the Order of the Garter and began to write American that their wings of immortality sprouted. Had Noah Webster, instead of styling his monumental work the "American Dictionary of the English Language," written a "Dictionary of the American Language," he would have become a founder instead of a compiler. Let our writers drop their top-coats, spats, and swagger-sticks, and assume occasionally their buckskin, moccasins, and tomahawks.
The bill failed.

Nevertheless, McCormick's firey passion stoked some independence coals in Illinois' congressmen. By the end of 1923, Illinois had hastily adopted "American" as the official state language later. Thus it was secured that the official language of Illinois is American, and not English or any other foreign tongue.

In many blue states, it is contentious to even adopt an official language. Many liberals find it a bit hypocritical, very ignorant, and terribly prideful, considering none of us learn the real American languages like Oneida, Algonquin, or Navajo. But Illinois found a way to look past that.

Sadly, the bill was amended in 1969 and the nomenclature was changed to "English." Kind of funny and sad, in a weird sort of way, that Illinois lost a very... how shall I put this... unique legal perspective on language.

Thank you, Representative McCormick.

Read the 1923 Draft of the bill at the Language Policy archive!

Read further discussion of Illinois' policy at the PBS' transcript of Do You Speak American?

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