It has been claimed that had history turned out only a little differently, we Americans would be saying boker tov and layla tov to our next-door neighbors. Hebrew, it is said, was proposed as the national language of theUnited States. If the idea seems far-fetched, don’t forget that as recently as October 2011, the newly fledged nation ofSouth Sudan adopted the language of Shakespeare even though most of its residents speak a form of Arabic and only a small minority speak fluent English. This was partially in reaction to years of oppression fromNorth Sudan and the attempts of its Muslims to Arabize the country. In the same way, out of sheer spite and hatred toEngland, it is not difficult to visualize the revolutionaries ofNorth America plotting a lingual cut withEngland even at the cost of great inconvenience to itself.
Yet another factor that makes it easier to imagine early Americans adopting Hebrew as a language is that most of them identified closely with the Bible. Mayflower pilgrims compared their trip over theAtlanticto the Jews crossing theRed Sea. Much of the early legislation ofNew Englandwas based on literary reading of the Bible. John Davenport, co-founder of a settlement inNew Haven, stated in 1639 that “the Word of G-d shall be the only rule to be attended unto in organizing the affairs of government in this plantation,” and indeed, almost allNew Haven’s 79 statutes came straight from the Chumash.
Biblical enthusiasm still existed at the time of the revolution against England. Thomas Jefferson described the revolutionary seal as “Pharaoh sitting in an open chariot, a crown on his head and a sword in his hand, passing thro’ the divided waters of the Red Seain pursuit of the Israelites, etc.” Families recorded their births and deaths in family bibles, and even town names reflected the Biblical influence. Names such as Eden, Rehoboth, Sharon, Bethel, Canaan, Hebron, Mamre, and Mt.Moriahare peppered over the United Statesmap. There is an Elim in Nebraska, an Ai in Ohio, Shushan in New York, and one Californian named his gold digging settlement Havilah, mentioned by the Chumash as a location of gold. Besides, there are at least fifteen locations namedZion, and no less than twenty-six Salems besides the one that hosted the famous witch hunt in 1692.
Hebrew is incorporated in the seals ofColumbia,Dartmouth, and Yale universities and offered as a study course by many colleges and universities. In parentheses, it should be noted that love of Bible and Hebrew did not always translate into over affection for Jews. America’s first Hebrew teacher, Judah Monis, who taught in Harvard from 1722 to 1760, had to convert before taking the job because only Christians were allowed on the university’s faculty.
Even in the 19th century, Edward Robinson, the famous American archeologist who made significant diggings in the area of Har Habayis, wrote that his inspiration to explore theHoly Land came from the Bible.
“As in the case of most of my countrymen, especially inNew England, the scenes of the Bible had made a deep impression upon my mind from the earliest childhood; and afterwards in riper years, this feeling had grown into a strong desire to visit in person the places so remarkable in the history of the human race. Indeed, in no country of the world, perhaps, is such a feeling more widely diffused than inNew England. In no country are the Scriptures better known or more highly prized.”
The Mayflower Vote
Did all this lead to Hebrew being proposed asAmerica’s national language?
The earliest date claimed for Hebrew ascendancy inAmericais 1620, when the 102 pilgrims of the Mayflower were about to disembark and found a colony in theNew World. Because not everyone on the boat belonged to the majority Puritan group and some of them wanted to exercise their own liberties, the group’s leader, William Bradford, insisted that every male adult, before disembarking, sign a compact to accept the rules established ashore. It has been claimed that the minutes of the meetings preceding the compact noted that a vote was taken which language the new settlers would speak, and Hebrew lost by only one vote.
There is some sense to the claim since William Bradford, subsequent governor of the colony for thirty years, was fanatical about the Hebrew language, saying he studied it so that after his death he might speak the “most ancient language, the Holy Tongue, in which G-d and the angels spake.” The only negative side to this theory is that historians seem unaware of any such vote ever taking place. Also, this claim seems suspiciously similar to an episode we’ll discuss later.
A more reliable record of Hebrew being proposed as the language of theUnited Stateswas recorded by the Marquis de Chastellux who traveled a lot with George Washington in the 1780s and personally witnessed Americans’ dislike of all things British. He mentions that on many an occasion he heard Americans, in contempt of the British way of speaking, say to him, “You speak very good American; American is not difficult to learn.”
“They go further,” the Marquis wrote, “and have seriously proposed to introduce a new language; and some, for the public convenience, would have the Hebrew substituted to the English, taught in the schools, and used in all public acts. You may suppose this scheme was not adopted: but you will at least conclude that the aversion of the Americans for the English could not show itself in a more striking manner.”
Hebrew was by no means the only language considered as a replacement for English.
The American scholar and author Charles Astor Bristed wrote in 1855: “It is still on record that a legislator seriously proposed that the young republic should complete its independence by adopting a different language from that of the mother country, [like] ‘the Greek for instance.’ But this proposition was summarily extinguished by a suggestion of a fellow representative (Roger Sherman of Connecticut, delegate to the Continental Congress and a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence) that ‘it would be more convenient for us to keep the language as it was, and make the English speak Greek.”
Another alternative was French, of which the etymologist Herbert Croft wrote in 1797, “During the American Revolution, the idea was started of revenging themselves onEnglandby rejecting its language and adopting that ofFrance.”
Another language long supposed as included among the proposed new languages of theUnited Statesis German. In 1987 a local Election Manual proved to voters that every vote counts by citing a claim similar to the Mayflower account mentioned earlier: “In 1776, one vote gaveAmericathe English language instead of German.” This is a slight exaggeration.
Although Germans comprised a significant part of theUSpopulation at one time, and are the ancestors of about 17 percent of theUnited Statesmodern day populace, their language was never considered for a national lingo. What did happen was that in 1794 a group of German speakers inVirginiapetitioned congress not to supplant English with German, but merely to publish three thousand copies of the federal laws in German “for the accommodation of such German citizens of theUnited States, as do not understand the English language.” OnJanuary 13, 1795, a vote to adjourn and sit again on the recommendation failed by a vote of 42 to 41, and similar measures were voted down a month later and in later years.
However, in 1847 Franz Loher wrote a book titled, History and Achievements of the Germans in America, mistakenly claimed that the vote was an attempt to make German the official language of Pennsylvania. This later morphed into the legend that German almost became the official language of theUnited States.
Besides the proposal of Hebrew, German, and French, there was also talk of establishing a language based on English but with a distinctly American flavor. In the 19th century, Daniel Webster, author of the famous dictionary declared, “Let us seize the present moment, and establish a national language as well as a national government. … As an independent nation our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government.” Franklin invented a new American alphabet and drew up an American scheme of spelling reform, and a Scotsman named Thornton proposed even more radical alphabet and spellings, arguing, “Di Amerike languids uil des bi az distint az de gevernment, fri from aul foliz or enfilosofikel fasen,” or, to put it in plain English, “The American language will thus be as distant as the [British] government, free from all foolish or unphilosophical fashion.”
Surprisingly, althoughAmericaremained an English speaking nation, on a national level, theUShas no official language. In 1981, Senator Samuel Hayakawa, an American of Japanese background, introduced a constitutional amendment, the English Language Amendment (ELA), to make English the official language, but the measure has so far failed. On the state level, however, English has been declared the official language in over half ofAmerica’s states.
German in Israel
Americawas not the only country to suffer indecision in regard to language. German was once considered as a possible national language for the Jews of theHoly Land. The originator of this brainwave was none other than Theodore Herzl, who wrote in his diary onJune 15, 1895: “I believe German will be our principal language…I draw this conclusion from our most widespread jargon, ‘Judeo-German’ [Yiddish]. But over there we shall wean ourselves from this ghetto language, too, which used to be the stealthy tongue of prisoners. Our teachers will see to that.”
Imagine! Had history turned out a little differently, American Zeides and Bubbies would have no difficulty speaking with their Israeli grandchildren in German or Hebrew.
(American Babel: Literatures of the United States from Abnaki to Zuni, Harvard English Studies, 2002. With Eyes Towards Zion, 1975: article, The Holy Land in American Spiritual History by Moshe David.)