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Nashville, Tennessee, is home to Vanderbilt University, the Grand Ole Opry, and apparently a ton of different languages.  So many, in fact, that they’re bleeding the city dry, according to Councilman Eric Crafton.  He was the driving force behind a special election for an English-only measure in Nashville that got voted on Thursday.

It failed.

I’m not here to talk about why I think such legislation is a bad idea, because this is just a grammar blog, not a linguistics or politics blog.  I’ll just mention what happened in Miami when they tried the same thing: everyone hated it, and it got repealed.  I’ll also mention that I happen to know a lot of smart people who are contributing to the economy, whose first language is not English, and who are able to converse in English, but aren’t great at understanding written English legalese.  I’ll also mention that there’s something known as the critical period in language learning, which prevents most adults from ever becoming fluent in a language they didn’t learn in childhood.  So these lazy immigrants don’t learn English not because they’re lazy, but because the task is almost insurmountably hard.  All right, I guess I was here to talk about why I think this is a bad idea.

But the thing I wanted to point out — and this at least borders on grammar — is that proponents of the measure called it an “English First” measure, as opposed to the more common appellation “English Only”.  Here is the text of the measure as it is listed on Nashville’s Election Commission‘s website, and I’ve taken the liberty of bolding a few words in it:

“English is the official language of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee. Official actions which bind or commit the government shall be taken only in the English language, and all official government communications and publications shall be in English. No person shall have a right to government services in any other language. All meetings of the Metro Council, Boards, and Commissions of the Metropolitan Government shall be conducted in English. The Metro Council may make specific exceptions to protect public health and safety.”

For not being an “English Only” rule, there sure are a lot of universal quantifiers (all, only, any other) in the measure’s text.  Saying something puts “English First” implies that something else comes second.  You don’t often say, “For breakfast, I shall first eat one quail’s egg.  I shall then be done.”  Nor do you often say, “My plans for tonight are to first watch television, and second, watch television.”  (Maybe facetiously.) I fail to see what comes second in the “English First” measure.  Possibly more English?  Or perhaps silence?  I guess the idea is that the Council may, at its discretion, choose to permit other languages for health and safety purposes, so that qualifies as “Other Languages Second”.  But, given that no person would have had a right to receive anything in another language, I don’t imagine the Metro Council would have often voluntarily exercised the “Other Languages Second” clause.

On a similar point, some of the English-only folks apparently find “anti-English-Only” to be too unwieldy, too hyphenated, too reasonable, so they just say “anti-English”. I guess I’m anti-English, then. Who’d’ve thunk it? (Besides prescriptivists, that is.)

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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