1. Education

German the Official US Language?

Did German lose out to English by just one vote?

The legend usually goes something like this: “In 1776, German came within one vote of becoming America's official language instead of English.”

Indep. Hall Philadephia
Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A vote on English or German?
Foto © Hyde Flippo

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. Think of the Hessian soldiers, von Steuben, Molly Pitcher and all that. But a closer look reveals several serious problems with this official-language story. First of all, the United States has never had an “official language”—English, German or any other—and doesn't have one now. Nor was there any such vote in 1776. Congressional debate and a vote concerning German probably did take place in 1795, but dealt with translating US laws into German, and the proposal to publish laws in languages other than English was rejected a few months later.

It is likely that the myth of German as the official language of the US first arose in the 1930s, but it dates back to the country's earliest history and another similar story. Most scholars suspect that the US legend originated as a German-American Bund propaganda move aimed at giving German added weight via the spurious claim that it had very nearly become America's official language. By mixing wishful thinking with certain historical events in Pennsylvania, the Nazi-influenced Bund produced the national vote story.

German Misnomers, Myths, Mistakes
More German Myths

On reflection, it is ridiculous to think that German might have become the official language of the US. At no time in its early history was the percentage of Germans in the United States ever higher than about ten percent, with most of that concentrated in one state: Pennsylvania. Even in that state, at no time did the number of German-speaking inhabitants ever exceed one-third of the population. Any claim that German might have become the main language of Pennsylvania in the 1790s, when over 66 percent of the population spoke English, is absurd.

But there is some Pennsylvania history that may have helped produce the national vote legend.

NEXT > The legend's Pennsylvania Connection

> 1: German an Official language?
> 2: The Pennsylvania Connection
> 3: Related Links

MORE MYTHS > German Misnomers, Myths, Mistakes

MORE > German Newspapers in the US
German may not have become the official language, but German-language newspapers have been around since America's earliest days.


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