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Many countries have national languages, which in essence codify the use of a primary language (or languages) in day-to-day government dealings as well as communication with its citizenry. For example, in the state of California, it is legally required of the Secretary of State to make voting ballots available in different languages in districts where a certain population threshold is met. In other words, if District A has more than 20% Korean-speaking people, ballots in District A must be offered in Korean.

Is it proper for a government to codify the exclusive use of a language (or group of languages)? Consequently, does a citizen have the prerogative to communicate with his government in the language he speaks?

asked Oct 16 '13 at 20:32

JK%20Gregg's gravatar image

JK Gregg ♦

Sorry for resurrecting an old thread, but I noticed this question did not yet have an answer.

I cannot think of a general principle in the philosophy of politics according to Objectivism that directly addresses codification of an official language(s). However, I do think that we can say a few things about the issue by considering the implications of certain principles.

First, note that a proper government is not allowed to violate rights. Second, note that the purpose of the government is to protect rights, and that the government should take all reasonable steps to achieve this purpose.

Thus, we can ask whether codification of a language(s) violates any rights—if so, it is forbidden. On the other hand, if the codification does not violate any rights, it still might be improper if it interferes with the government fulfilling its purpose of protecting rights.

With regard to the first issue, it is pretty clear that the government would NOT be violating someone’s rights by refusing to communicate with that person in the person’s desired language. There cannot be a right to have others converse with you in your desired language. Rights, properly understood, cannot impose burdens on other people other than the burden to not initiate force against you. In other words, proper rights are negative (requiring others not to do something), not positive (requiring other to do something).

With regard to the second issue, there seems to be some room for reasonable disagreement here, and more analysis of facts may be required to come to the correct answer. In particular, there is a reasonable argument that the government might be less effective at fulfilling its sole purpose—protecting rights—if it does not speak the language of a sizable portion of its citizens. For example, police departments in areas with large Spanish speaking populations may find it difficult to do their job well if they do not have at least someone on hand who can speak Spanish. Similarly, a court might not be able to render a just verdict if the court is unable to understand a party or a witness, and thus provision of translators may be reasonable (although perhaps at cost to the party requiring the translation?).

On the other hand, most codification schemes would not forbid the government to converse with citizens in their own languages in situations like those discussed above, but rather are directed solely to the issue of what languages official government documents will be printed in (voting ballots, forms, government websites, laws, etc.). Restricting the language in which government documents are printed does not seem like it would interfere with the government performing its sole purpose of protecting rights. For example, consider a voting ballot—an individual not being able to read the voting ballot does not necessarily keep the government from doing its job of protecting rights. . .the government can protect your rights whether or not you vote. Thus, it seems that codification of language with regard to government documents might be permissible (whether they would be wise is a different question from whether they would be permissible).

Thus, to summarize, limited codification of a language with regard to government documents appears to be, at first analysis, permissible (although no comment about whether it is wise), but that forbidding any use by the government of non-official languages would not be permissible since it would interfere with the government fulfilling its purpose.

answered May 22 '15 at 11:59

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

I think a major issue here is, the government needs to be able to assume that everyone can understand the laws, rulings, and police instructions--and for that, having one official language is necessary. Obviously the language must be spoken by the population for this assumption to hold true. Basically, to protect rights the government needs to be able to assume "If I say X, you understand what I mean", and an official language accomplishes that WITHOUT preventing the use of other languages in the population.

(Jun 18 '15 at 13:08) James James's gravatar image

I assumed, but neglected to state, that of course there is at least one language the government uses. Indeed, for the government to communicate at all, it must use some language, and it is only natural for it to establish at least one language as a default language that it will always use (generally the language spoken by the majority of people in the state). The issue I sought to address, however, is not whether the government should have an official language, but instead whether the government should be forbidden to use any language other than the official language.

(Aug 13 '15 at 17:11) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

What many proponents of "codification" are advocating is FORBIDDING the government to use any language other than the official language. For example, they are not merely advocating that all government documents be printed in English (which already is the case), but instead that all government documents be prinited ONLY in English. As anther example, they are not merely advocating that public schools teach in English (which they already do), but instead that all public schools teach ONLY in English. This is the movement that I was responding to in my question.

(Aug 13 '15 at 17:14) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image
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Asked: Oct 16 '13 at 20:32

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Last updated: Aug 13 '15 at 17:21