While the United States historically has been a polyglot nation characterized by great linguistic diversity, it has also been a zone of language extinction in which immigrant tongues fade and are replaced by monolingual English within a few generations. In 1910, 10 million people reported a mother tongue other than English, notably German, Italian, Yiddish, and Polish. The subsequent end of mass immigration from Europe led to a waning of language diversity and the most linguistically homogenous era in American history. But the revival of immigration after 1970 propelled the United States back toward its historical norm. By 2010, 60 million people (a fifth of the population) spoke a non-English language, especially Spanish. In this essay, we assess the effect of new waves of immigration on language diversity in the United States, map its evolution demographically and geographically, and consider what linguistic patterns are likely to persist and prevail in the twenty-first century.
Contrary to what some Americans seem to believe, the United States historically has been a polyglot nation containing a diverse array of languages. At the time of independence, non-English European immigrants made up one-quarter of the population; in Pennsylvania, two-fifths of the population spoke German.1 In addition, an unknown but presumably significant share of the new nation’s inhabitants spoke an American-Indian or African language, suggesting that perhaps one-third or more of all Americans spoke a language other than English. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 (which doubled the size of the country), the Treaty of 1818 with Britain (which added the Oregon Country), the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819 with Spain (which gave Florida to the United States), and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 (which acquired nearly half of Mexico), tens of thousands of French and Spanish speakers, along with many more slaves and the diverse indigenous peoples of those vast territories, were added to the linguistic . . .
- 1Marc Shell, “Babel in America; or, the Politics of Language Diversity in the United States,” Critical Inquiry 20 (1993): 103–127.