Did America Almost Speak German? Posted by Sten on Apr 29, 2017 in Culture, History, Language
You have probably heard of that one Gerücht (rumor): The United States once had a vote that would have decided what the official language of the country was going to be. And only one vote decided whether that was going to be English – or German! The deciding vote was cast by Frederick Muhlenberg. This legend is called after him for that reason: the Muhlenberg Legend.
Truth behind the legend
Frederick Muhlenberg was the first speaker of the US House of Representatives in 1789. The alleged vote on the official language of the United States was in 1794 – but it was not about choosing an official language of the United States. German immigrants wanted some laws to be translated into German so they could understand the law and did not have to learn English first to understand them. The House voted on the matter, and rejected the request by 42 to 41. Muhlenberg could have had the deciding vote, but abstained. The reason for that becomes clear from what he said later: “the faster the Germans become Americans, the better it will be.”
What’s more, the United States does not even have an official language at the federal level. 32 states chose English as their official language at a later point in time – but the United States as a whole never made that decision.
So if the basis is that loose, how did this legend become so firm anyways?
Spreading the Gerücht
The Gerücht was first mentioned by Franz von Löher, a German who in 1847 wrote a book about observations he made while traveling the States. It was spread by some in the years following. The Nazis widely popularized the Gerücht in the 1930s. Of course, it would make Germany look better if the United States had actually almost been a German-speaking country! It gained so much traction that in 1982, the Congressional Research Service looked into it and definitely showed that it was wrong. And yet, the story persists.
If you think about it, it makes little sense that such a vote would have happened. Even at the time, the United States was a nation of predominantly English-speaking immigrants. Only a small group spoke German. So, if not even English is the official language, why would German get to be that?
Did you believe this legend before? What do you think – should the United States have an official language? Let me know in the comments below!