An official language is a language that is given a special legal status in a particular country, state, or other jurisdiction. Typically a country's official language refers to the language used within government (e.g., courts, parliament, administration). Since "the means of expression of a people cannot be changed by any law", the term "official language" does not typically refer to the language used by a people or country, but by its government.
The choice of an official language or languages (or the choice not to have any official language) is often a contentious issue. Worldwide 178 countries have at least one official language, and many recognize more than one language. Some countries use the official language designation to empower indigenous groups by giving them access to the government in their native languages. In countries that choose not to designate an official language, a de facto national language usually evolves. English is the most common official language, with recognized status in 51 countries. Arabic, French, and Spanish are also widely recognized.
Around 500 BC, when Darius the Great annexed Mesopotamia to the Persian Empire, he chose a form of Aramaic language (the so-called Official Aramaic or Imperial Aramaic) as the vehicle for written communication between the different regions of the vast empire with its different peoples and languages.
According to an undated chart by the American pro-English-only organization known as U.S. English, 178 countries have an official language at the national level. Among those, English is the most common with 67 nations giving it official status. French is second with 29 countries, Arabic is third with 26 countries and Spanish is fourth with 19 countries, Portuguese is the official language of 9 countries and German is official in 6. Some countries—like Australia, Britain and the United States—have no official language recognized as such at national level. On the other extreme, Bolivia officially recognizes 37 languages, the most by any country in the world. Second to Bolivia is India with 23 official languages.
The selection of an official language (or no official language) is often contentious. An alternative to having a single official language is "official multilingualism", where a government recognizes multiple official languages. Under this system, all government services are available in all official languages. Each citizen may choose their preferred language when conducting business. Canada, Philippines, Belgium, Switzerland, and the European Union are examples of official multilingualism. In almost all these areas the policy is controversial and in other areas where it has been proposed, the idea has been rejected.
In specific countries
In accordance with the Constitution Act, 1982 the (federal) Government of Canada gives equal status to English and French as official languages. The province of New Brunswick is also officially bilingual, as are the territories (Yukon, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories), but all provinces offer some necessary services in both English and French.
Canadian advocates of a single official language say it promotes national identity. In Canada, debate has focused on whether the local majority language should be made the exclusive language of public business. In the Canadian province of Quebec, for example, laws restrict the use of the minority English in education, on signs, and in the workplace.
German is the official language of Germany. However, its minority languages include Sorbian, Romani, Danish and North Frisian, which are officially recognised. Migrant languages like Turkish, Russian and Spanish are widespread, but are not recognised official languages.
The recognition of English as an official language is frequently discussed in the public. According to a representative YouGov survey, 59 percent of all Germans would welcome the establishment of English as an official language in the whole European Union.
New Zealand has three official languages. Official status can be used to give a language (often indigenous) a legal status even if that language is not widely spoken. For example, in New Zealand the Māori language and New Zealand Sign Language both have de jure official status under the Māori Language Act 1987 and New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006 respectively, even though Te Reo Māori is spoken by less than five percent of New Zealanders.
The Constitution of Latvia (or Satversme) designated Latvian as the state language. On 2012 there was initiative to hold referendum on constitutional amendments, elevating Russian as a state language; proposed several constitutional amendments for introducing Russian as Latvia’s second official language—i.e., amendments to the Satversme’s Articles 4 (on Latvian as the state language), 18 (on the solemn promise of a member of Parliament to strengthen the Latvian language), 21 (on Latvian as the working language of the Parliament), 101 (on Latvian as the working language of local governments), and 104 (on the right to receive a reply to a petition in Latvian), since Article 4 of the Satversme alike norms of independence, democracy, sovereignty, territorial wholeness, and basic principles of elections that form the core of the Satversme (according to Article 77), the initiative, in fact, proposed discontinuing an existing state and establishing a new one that is no longer a nation-state wherein Latvians exercise their rights to self-determination, enjoying and maintaining their cultural uniqueness.
South Africa has eleven official languages that are mostly indigenous. Due to poor funding, however, the government rarely produces documents in most of the languages. Accusations of mismanagement and corruption have been leveled against the Pan South African Language Board, which is in charge of maintaining the system.
At the federal level, the United States has no official language, but 27 U.S. states and all inhabited U.S. territories have designated English the official language and courts have found that residents do not have a right to government services in their preferred language. Public debate in the last few decades has focused on whether Spanish should be recognized by the government, or whether all business should be done in English.
At the state level, California allows people to take their driving test in the following 32 languages: Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Cambodian, Chinese, Croatian, English, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hmong, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Samoan, Spanish, Tagalog/Filipino, Thai, Tongan, Turkish, and Vietnamese.
The pro-English-only website U.S. English sees a multilingual government as one in which its "services actually encourage the growth of linguistic enclaves...[and] contributes to racial and ethnic conflicts". Opponents of an official language policy in the United States argue that it would hamper "the government's ability to reach out, communicate, and warn people in the event of a natural or man-made disaster such as a hurricane, pandemic, or...another terrorist attack". Professor of politics Alan Patten argues that disengagement (officially ignoring the issue) works well in religious issues but that it is not possible with language issues because it must offer public services in some language. Even if it makes a conscious effort not to establish an official language, a de facto official language, or the "national language", will nevertheless emerge. Indeed, two-thirds of Americans believe that English is the United States' official language.
Sometimes an official language definition can be motivated more by national identity than by linguistic concerns. When Yugoslavia dissolved in 1991, the country had three official languages—Serbo-Croatian, Slovene and Macedonian. Serbo-Croatian was used for mutual understanding and was also the language of the army.
When Croatia broke away, it defined its official language as Croatian. Serbia likewise defined its official language as Serbian. Bosnia-Herzegovina defined three official languages—Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. The different "languages" are mutually intelligible and linguists see them more as dialects than as distinct languages. Critics allege that the Bosnian government chose to define three languages to reinforce ethnic differences and keep the country divided. The language used in Montenegro, traditionally considered a dialect of Serbian, became standardized as the Montenegrin language upon its declaration of independence.
- List of official languages by state
- List of official languages by institution
- List of languages without official status
- Minority language
- "Official Language", Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, Ed. Tom McArthur, Oxford University Press, 1998.
- The Status of Languages in Puerto Rico. Luis Muñiz-Arguelles. University of Puerto Rico. 1986. Page 466. Retrieved 23 November 2012.
- Pueblo v. Tribunal Superior, 92 D.P.R. 596 (1965). Translation taken from the English text, 92 P.R.R. 580 (1965), p. 588-589. See also LOPEZ-BARALT NEGRON, "Pueblo v. Tribunal Superior: Español: Idioma del proceso judicial", 36 Revista Juridica de la Universidad de Puerto Rico. 396 (1967), and VIENTOS-GASTON, "Informe del Procurador General sobre el idioma", 36 Rev. Col. Ab. (P.R.) 843 (1975).
- Alan Patten (October 2011). "Political Theory and Language Policy" (PDF). Political Theory (Princeton) 29 (5): 691–715. Retrieved August 25, 2013.
- "Language in South Africa: An official mess". The Economist. July 5, 2013. Retrieved August 25, 2013.
- Official Languages at the Heart of Our Identity: An overview of the Official Languages Act. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. Ottawa, Canada. Retrieved 26 August 2013.
- Surveay: Majority of Germans pro English as an official language, YouGov , 9 August 2013
- Statistics New Zealand:Language spoken (total responses) for the 1996–2006 censuses (Table 16).[dead link]
- New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006. New Zealand Legislation. Retrieved 24 July 2013.
- NZ Sign Language to be third official language. Ruth Dyson. 2 April 2006. Retrieved 24 July 2013.
- Jarinovska, K. "Popular Initiatives as Means of Altering the Core of the Republic of Latvia", Juridica International. Vol. 20, 2013. p. 152 ISSN1406-5509
- James M. Inhofe; Cecilia Muñoz. "Should English be declared America's national language?". The New York Times upfront. Scholastic. Retrieved August 25, 2013.
- "Available Languages". California DMV. Retrieved November 26, 2014.
- "Why Is Official English Necessary?". U.S. English. Retrieved August 26, 2013.
- James Crawford. "Language Freedom and Restriction: A Historical Approach to the Official Language Controversy". Effective Language Education Practices and Native Language Survival. pp. 9–22. Retrieved August 26, 2013.
- David M. Herszenhorn (July 4, 2012). "Ukrainian Official Quits to Protest Russian-Language Bill". New York Times. Retrieved August 26, 2013.
- Selma Boračić; Ajdin Kamber (December 5, 2011). "Language Politics in Bosnia". Institute for War & Peace Reporting. Retrieved August 26, 2013.
- Writing Systems of the World: Alphabets, Syllabaries, Pictograms (1990), ISBN 0-8048-1654-9 — lists official languages of the countries of the world, among other information.
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