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Friday, March 16, 2007

English As 'Official' Language: Must 'Ohio' Change Its Iroquois Name?

CINCINNATI (TDB) -- A linguist I know pointed out a possible unintended consequence of congressional efforts to establish English as the sole "official language" of the United States -- an awful lot of things are described with words borrowed from other tongues. And she wondered if a federal law applied too literally would lead to a great scrubbing and cleansing. The problem, she said, is that it is often difficult to discern where English starts and other languages stop. We are a nation of immigrants and the words we use every day are a melange. English is predominant, but there are plenty of other languages in the cultural Cuisinart.

Take the word ballot. The plan is to make all ballots appear in English. But the word ballot itself is from Italy, ballotta. This might be an extreme, but consider the possibility that ballot is banned. Or this: A health inspector goes out to check a pizzeria. What word appears on the health report, which as an official government document has to be written entirely in English?

Citizens who pledge allegiance would be people whose description, "citizen," originated in Middle English, a polyglot of Low German, Old English, French and Latin. Allegiance came from the same source, the polyglot spoken and written between 1100 and 1500 in portions of the British Isles.

Other examples abound, starting in Washington, D.C., which is located in the District of Columbia, which means of or related to Christopher Columbus, who sailed for the Spanish Crown but was an Italian. U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Oh-02, who is cosponsoring two official English measures, comes from Clermont County, Ohio. Clermont is French, and presumably might have to be retranslated into English to appear in legal records, deeds, and on government-issued maps.

Ohio has its roots in the Iroquoian language family that was spoken by the Native Americans from a confederation of nations that exercised domain over what are now western and northern New York, Ontario and Quebec.

The French explorers who traded with the Iroquois were seeking a passage to the Pacific, and the Indians told them of a great or beautiful river -- Ohio. The French translated it as belle riviere -- beautiful river. If English becomes official, does Ohio officially become Beautiful River? Would that be the true English name used for the state and its namesake waterway?

Toledo is named after a city in Spain and Detroit is French, meaning of the strait, a geographical reference to the Motor City's location on bank of the short waterway that links Lake Huron to Lake Erie. And what about Erie? That, too, is an Indian word, meaning either fox or wildcat.

All across the United States, there are seemingly endless examples of non-English words in everyday use. Florida (flowers) , Los Angeles, San Francisco are all Spanish. Cincinnati is Latin. All the Berlins -- and there are many --hail from German. Pulaski, Tenn., is named for a Polish nobleman who served in the Revolutionary War.

American currency and money is designated as dollars -- a word that originated in low German and Dutch. An American slang expresssion, bucks, could easily be substituted for dollars. But inquiring minds want to know: Is switching to English worth making change?

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