An official language refers to the language (or multiple languages) that a country’s government uses for official business. The practice of adopting — or not adopting — an official language can become highly controversial. After all, language intimately intersects with heritage and national identity, which both elicit strong reactions and opinions from people. With that in mind, what is the official language of the United States? We’ve got the answer, and six other facts you probably didn’t know about the U.S. official language.
1. The United States has no official language
It’s true, there’s no official language of the United States at the federal level. The debate about whether or not to adopt an official language has been going on since at least the 1750s. Still, the vast majority of people in the United States speak English (about 300 million), which makes it the country’s de facto (in practice, instead of in law) official language.
2. Over half the states in the U.S. have made English an official language
Although there are no laws stating that English is the official language at the federal level, 31 states have their own laws proclaiming it as the official language on the state level, which usually just means it has to be used for government communications.
3. Three states have other official languages in addition to English
4. Speaking a foreign language in public was once illegal in parts of the U.S.
During and after World War I, when anti-German sentiment was high in the United States, parts of the Midwest made it a crime to speak German and other foreign languages in public. And there were several other periods when speaking a foreign language in the United States was considered dangerous.
5. Today, the U.S. remains a melting pot of languages
There may be no official language, but there are at least 350 different languages spoken in the United States. After English, the top five in terms of native speakers are Spanish, Chinese (including Cantonese, Mandarin and other varieties), French (and French Creole), Tagalog and Vietnamese. Note: this list is likely to change after the 2020 Census.
6. Even among native English speakers, there’s a ton of variation in the language
There are at least 24 dialects of American English spoken in the United States, according to linguist Robert Delaney, who developed a map of the United States by regional dialect. Delaney writes that a dialect has its “own grammar, vocabulary, syntax, and common expressions as well as pronunciation rules,” which set it apart from an accent, which refers only to the way words are pronounced.
7. And one more thing: German was never under consideration to be an official language
There’s a compelling story that German was once “one vote away” from becoming the official language of the United States, but it’s a myth. In 1795, there was a vote on whether to print the federal laws in both German and English. A vote to adjourn and discuss the recommendation again failed by 42 to 41, which is how historians believe the story began that German was a hair’s breadth away from becoming an official language.