The legend usually goes something like this: “In 1776, German came within one vote of becoming America’s official language instead of English.” It is a story that Germans, German teachers, and many other people like to tell. But is it true?
At first glance it may sound plausible. After all, Germans have played an important role in US history. But a closer look reveals several serious problems with this official-language story. First of all, the United States has never had a statutory official language – English, German or any other – and doesn’t have one now; English has been used as a de facto basis, owing to its status as the country’s predominant language.
This urban legend states that because of Muhlenberg (Speaker of the House), German did not become the official language of the United States. At the heart of this legend is a vote in the United States House of Representatives from 1794, where a group of German immigrants asked for the translation of some laws into German. This petition was rejected by a 42-41 vote and Muhlenberg, who himself abstained from the vote, was later quoted as having said “the faster the Germans become Americans, the better it will be”.
Before WWI, more than 6% of American schoolchildren received their primary education only in German. Furthermore, as of the recent US census, about 50 million Americans, or 17% of the U.S. population, claim their ethnic origin to be German, the largest reported ethnic group. Only 1.5 million, however, speak the language at the present time. Today, German is the second most spoken language in two states of North and South Dakota.
In Pennsylvania, where the state had a large German-American population, German was long allowed as the language of instruction in schools, and state documents were available in German until 1950. As a result of anti-German sentiment during World War I, the fluency decreased from one generation to the next and only a small fraction of Pennsylvanians of German descent are fluent in the German language.