Proponents of "English-only" laws portray the controversy over the
increased use of Spanish as unprecedented
["Spread of Spanish Greeted by Unwelcome Signs," news story, Feb. 6]. But
the history of the German language in this country argues otherwise.
Immigration from the independent states and principalities that we now
call Germany started in the 1600s and persisted throughout the colonial
and antebellum periods, resulting in more than 7 million new Americans,
the largest and longest migration in this country's history. The newcomers
differed by region of origin, class, culture and religion. About the only
thing that united them was language, which they consciously preserved.
In the mid-1700s, Ben Franklin griped about Philadelphia's bilingual
street signs and complained that the Pennsylvania legislature would soon
need German-English interpreters.
Large numbers of Germans came to Maryland from Pennsylvania starting in
1732. They settled in Frederick, Washington and Carroll counties, where in
1787 records from the Constitutional Convention were issued in German.
Baltimore also drew German immigrants who made up nearly 25 percent of the
city's population by the mid-1800s. In 1873 the city council ordered the
establishment of bilingual public schools, with German as the exclusive
language of instruction for art and music in the upper grades.
Germans fueled the growth of cities such as Milwaukee, Cincinnati,
Cleveland and Indianapolis. Bilingual education expanded. Stanford
linguist Geoffrey Nunberg estimates that "At the turn of the century . . .
more than 6 percent of all American schoolchildren were receiving most or
all of their primary education in the German language alone."
While today American language and culture exert remarkable influence
the world over, 19th century Germans argued that the "high culture" that
produced the philosophy of Nietzsche, the poetry of Goethe and the operas
of Wagner was superior to anything this country could muster. The outbreak
of World War I muted such sentiments and
effectively put an end to German in America.