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, here are seven surprising facts about the United States’ official language, starting with…
1. The United States has no official language
However, the debate about whether or not to adopt an official language has been going on since at least the 1750’s. Still, the vast majority of people in the U.S. speak English, which is the country’s de facto 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 made English the official language.
3. Only one state is officially bilingual
Hawaii is the only state to be officially bilingual, recognizing Hawaiian Pidgin English as an official language in 2015.
4. Speaking a foreign language in public was once illegal in parts of the U.S.
During and after WWI, when anti-German sentiment was high in the U.S., parts of the Midwest made it a crime to speak German and other foreign languages in public. In addition, most of the states dropped German classes from schools during this time.
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 U.S. today. 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.
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 U.S., according to linguist Robert Delaney, who developed a map of the U.S. 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.
7. And one more thing: German was never under consideration to be an official language of the U.S.
There’s a compelling story that German was once “one vote away” from becoming the official language of the U.S., 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.