A meme has been floating around Facebook lately with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt. The quote reads:
“Every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or leave the country.”
Of course, if a nation is to be united, there must be a unifying language. When Italy unified in 1860, the Italian government legislated that they would be unified under the Florentine dialect, which would later become known as Italian. On the other hand, there are countries such as India that remain linguistically diverse despite being unified politically. The spoken language changes from region to region, or from city to city.
However, Roosevelt failed to take into consideration the natural process of the evolution of language — he attempted to resist the linguistically inevitable in the name of American nationalism.
One of the main principles of human language is that it evolves. Take, for example, the English language. Old English technically does not appear until 600 A.D. The development of the English language can be divided into four large stages throughout its history: Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English and Modern English.
If a community is healthy and global, it develops. If a language is not developing, like the Älvdalsk, an old Norse language spoken in a section of Sweden, it’s because the community has been isolated.
However, this is not the situation in which America finds itself. America is a global power. We exchange information and inventions with other world powers and thus adopt bits and pieces of other languages from other nations.
In addition to this, we are a nation of immigrants. The number of linguistic influences that infiltrate American English is unbelievable. You know the phrase “capisce?” That’s a derogatory form of “hai capito?” which the Sicilian-Americans brought over. “Squash?” That’s from eastern Native American tribes. “Boss?” That’s Dutch.
English is not a holy, untainted language. Like every other language spoken by human beings, it is affected by outside sources, and it develops. One has to learn to read the English of the 700s; one cannot just simply pick up the literature from that period and expect to read it unchallenged.
In addition to the linguistic impossibility of isolating English from influences in a very global world, it is unreasonable to expect all immigrants to learn a complicated language such as English within five years.
Yes, if they are going to work in the United States, they will be naturally forced to learn English out of necessity.
But what about that old Russian woman who was fleeing communism with her children? Is she supposed to learn English at 85 or be deported at 90? Or those trying to recover their lives after fleeing violence? Are we going to send them back because they couldn’t learn English within a five-year period?
Roosevelt’s idea of forcing immigrants to learn English within five years is unreasonable and is an attempt to resist the inevitable development of the English language.
If a country wishes to be completely monolinguistic, it must cut off all ties with any other linguistic influence and ban the further development of slang, another thoroughly natural form of linguistic development.