Some Reflections on Puerto Rico, Language, and National Identity

Posted on March 10, 2010


Questions about the complex political status of Puerto Rico as a commonwealth within the United States are, once again, on the table in Washington, D.C., and in San Juan. The road to becoming the 51st State seems to be wide open for the island. It has, no doubt, been cleared and paved by a Democratic leadership in Washington which is understandably keen to add congressional seats to their roll from a Democratically-inclined constituency. Puerto Ricans, dissatisfied with a chronically stagnant economy, are seemingly showing more interest in the prospect than on previous occasions when it has been shown them.

In this debate, some commentators have highlighted an interesting dimension in seizing on the question of language. English and Spanish are co-official languages in Puerto Rico but the latter remains the de facto official language (with only 20% of residents speaking English fluently). Current legislative proposals in Washington do not touch on this issue but would allow current arrangements to stay in place. The prospect of a Spanish-speaking state in the Union has provoked dismay in not a few commentators. Some have been alarmed before by Miami shop windows announcing, ‘English spoken here’.

The episode drags centre-stage the role of language in national identity. It is clear that language matters very much to many people in both Puerto Rico and the US. Having attended several academic as well as non-academic conferences on migration, in part on account of a student project at the TMI, I can attest that to the simmering state of the issue in Europe also. The question is what government action, if any, is called for.

Proponents of legislating for official languages and for requiring migrants to speak the local language often put forward two basic arguments. One is pragmatic. Because public discourse (in all spheres) is founded on mutual communication and interaction, governments must take upon themselves the coordinating role of dictating a common medium – in short, a language. The other argument is that, over time, national languages merit promotion and protection simply in virtue of their amounting to a key element in cultural and historical heritages.

Opponents of legislating, on the other hand, often take the view that it is beyond the competence of any government arbitrarily to dictate what language should be dominant. On this reading, with languages, and indeed their usage, evolving organically and adapting to the needs and preferences of their speakers, there can be dictation only from below – literally vox populi –, never from above.

With such arguments in mind it is easier to penetrate the often heated debate about language in the U.S. The importance and primacy of English owes much to its role in the historic origins of the nation, its foundational texts, and its cultural traditions. With, however, Hispanics assuming a more prominent societal role, should not their language be allowed to claim its place in the sun? As for Europe, such reflections must raise questions as to whether a serious federal union is culturally or practically feasible. They also provide ammunition for proponents of non-interference by governments in linguistic matters – people who fear that if European governmental elites had had their way we might all be speaking some form of ‘European’ by now.