The Muhlenberg legend is an urban legend in the United States and Germany. According to the legend, the single vote of Frederick Muhlenberg, the first ever Speaker of the US House of Representatives, prevented German from becoming an official language of the United States. The story has a long history and has been told in several variations, which may be based in part on actual events.
The United States, however, has no statutory official language; English has been used on a de facto basis because of its status as the country's predominant language. At times, various states have passed their own official language laws.
History and basisEdit
There are several versions of the story. One source of the legend may be a vote in the US House of Representatives in 1794 after a group of German immigrants had asked for the translation of some laws into German. The petition was debated by the House of Representatives but was not acted upon. A vote to adjourn and to reconsider it later was defeated 42 to 41. Muhlenberg, who was of German descent himself and had not voted in the roll call, was later quoted as having said that "the faster the Germans become Americans, the better it will be."
Other accounts credit Franz von Löher as the source of the legend. Löher was a German visitor to the United States who published the book Geschichte und Zustände der Deutschen in Amerika (History and Conditions of the Germans in America) in 1847. Löher seemingly placed the crucial vote only in Pennsylvania to make German the official language of that state, not the United States as a whole. (Philadelphia was the city in which the US Congress then sat, but it was also the capital of Pennsylvania. To confuse matters further, Muhlenburg had served as Speaker of the Pennsylvania House before he served in that title in the US Congress.) According to Löher, the vote was a tie, which Muhlenberg broke for English.
Another version of the myth, which puts the vote in 1774 by the Continental Congress, appeared in Ripley's Believe It or Not! as early as 1930. Ripley's included the myth in a 1982 book as well. Ripley's version credits the story to an alleged letter by Heinrich Melchior Muhlenberg published in Halle in 1887.
The legend has a long history and led to a number of analyses and articles published from the late 1920s to the early 1950s explaining that the story was false. The story was dubbed the "Muhlenberg Legend" by the late 1940s. Nevertheless, the legend persists.
For example, in 1987, a letter from a former Missouri election official in emphasized the importance of voting in an Ann Landers column. He included a list of events allegedly decided by one vote from his local election manual, one of which was a claim that "in 1776, one vote gave America the English language instead of German." (In fact, versions of the error-filled list long had predated the 1987 Ann Landers mention.) That led to another round of news stories again pointing out that it was a myth. Oblivious to corrections of that sort, Ann Landers ran the same list again in November 1996. A chorus of dismayed responses caused Landers to clear up the matter in a subsequent column. According to one letterwriter, who begged Landers to "stomp out that piece of fiction wherever you encounter it," the myth gained traction in the 1930s by the work of Nazi propagandists.
- The German Vote, Snopes.com, July 9, 2007
- Sick, Bastian (May 19, 2004). "German as the official language of the USA?", Spiegel Online (in English)
- Heath, Shirley Brice & Frederick Mandabach. "Language Status Decisions and the Law in the United States,* in Cobarrubias, Juan & Joshua A. Fishman, eds., Progress in Language Planning, p. 94 (1983)
- Loher, Franz. Geschichte und Zustände der Deutschen in Amerika (1847) (in German) via archive.org
- Mencken, Henry L. The American Language: Supplement One, pp. 138–39 (1945)
- Zagofsky, Al (February 5, 2011). "Was German almost the official language of the U.S.?" Archived 2015-10-12 at the Wayback Machine, Times-News
- "Believe It or Not: A Refutation of Mr. Ripley's Very Absurd Fabrication Concerning the Continental Congress", Carnegie Magazine (1930)
- Ripley's believe it or not! book of chance (1982)
- W. L. Werner (February 18, 1943). "A German Language Rumor Traced Down". American Speech. Reprinted in The Milwaukee Journal
- Feer, Robert A. (October 1952). "Official Use of the German Language in Pennsylvania". The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (Vol. 76, No. 4).
- Arndt, Karl J. R. "German as the Official Language of the United States of America?", Monatshefte, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Summer, 1976), pp. 129–150. Arndt's article attempts to trace pre-Loher accounts, which may have helped foster the legend, including an 1813 article by Justus Christian Henry Helmuth; at n. 21, Arndt lists seven accounts published between 1927 and 1952 debunking the myth, starting with the second edition of Albert Bernhardt Faust's The German Element in the United States, at Vol. II, pp. 652–656 (1927).
- Lohr, Otto. "Deutsch als 'Landessprache' der Vereinigten Staaten?", Mitteilungen der Akademie zur wissenschaftlichen Erforschung und zur Pflege des Deutschtums 4 (1931): 283–290 (in German)
- Wood, Ralph C. The Second Period of the German Society of Pennsylvania and the Muhlenberg Legend, publication?, cited in The German American Review, 1949
- Zepezauer, Frank S. (8 August 1981). "When German almost became our language", Milwaukee Journal
- Baron, Dennis (March 1996). "Urban Legend: German almost became the official language of the US". Archived 2015-06-25 at the Wayback Machine, watzmann.net (reprinting 1996 essay by Dennis Baron, full account of the legend and its origin)
- Adams, Willi Paul et al. Indiana University-Purdue: "German or English?" Archived 2010-06-24 at the Wayback Machine, in The German-Americans: An Ethnic Experience (1993)
- (March 19, 1968). "Single Votes Have Made History", Sumter Daily Item
- Baron, Dennis. "The Legendary English-Only Vote of 1795", PBS
- (April 7, 1987). "Importance of one vote overlooked by Americans", Kentucky New Era (syndicated Ann Landers column)
- (November 4, 1996). Debate continues on Internet pros and cons, Ocala Star-Banner
- (December 30, 1996). "Here's A Good Book That Will Grab You", Chicago Tribune
- Von Löher, Franz. Geschichte und Zustände der Deutschen in Amerika (1847) (in German) via archive.org