The war on language was fought on two fronts, one legal, the other, in the schools. Its impact was immediate and long-lasting. German was the target, but the other “foreign” tongues suffered collateral damage. Immigrant languages in America went into decline, and there was a precipitous drop in the study of foreign languages in US schools as well.
Boycotting German was the first step in the campaign, but legislating against the language quickly followed. Scribner’s was urged to publish no German titles during the war. Sheet music dealers refused to handle German songs. At least one American Berlin was renamed Liberty. Even German foods were rebranded. Just as later, during the Iraq War, French fries would become freedom fries, in the America of World War I, German fried potatoes became American fries, sauerkraut morphed into liberty cabbage, and superpatriots even caught the liberty measles.
In addition, new laws regulated the use of foreign languages. Responding to a growing sentiment that using anything but English gave aid and comfort to the enemy, the Trading with the Enemy Act (50 USC Appendix), passed in June, 1917, suppressed the American foreign-language press and declared non-English printed matter unmailable without a certified English translation.
Across the country, state and local ordinances forbade the use of foreign languages, urged immigrants to switch to English immediately, and punished those who failed to comply. On May 23, 1918, Iowa Gov. William Harding banned the use of any foreign language in public: in schools, on the streets, in trains, even over the telephone, a more public instrument then than it is today. For Harding, the First Amendment “is not a guaranty of the right to use a language other than the language of this country—the English language.”
Harding’s English-only order covered freedom of religion as well: “Let those who cannot speak or understand the English language conduct their religious worship in their home.” And he told one reporter, “There is no use in anyone wasting his time praying in other languages than English. God is listening only to the English tongue.”
Speaking in Des Moines five days later, former president Theodore Roosevelt endorsed Harding’s “Babel Proclamation,” introducing a phrase that would become a refrain of today’s official English movement: "America is a nation—not a polyglot boarding house. . . . There can be but one loyalty—to the Stars and Stripes; one nationality—the American—and therefore only one language—the English language." Such attitudes had a chilling effect on language use. 18,000 people were charged in the Midwest with violating the various new English-only statutes.
The schools opened up a second front in the Great War on foreign languages in World War I America. In 1918, the New York Times reported that as many as 25 states had already removed German from the curriculum, an action the newspaper applauded as “a matter of polity, of patriotism, of Americanism” and “good hard common sense.”
Schoolchildren had to take a “Watch Your Speech” pledge which began, “I love the United States of America. I love my country’s language,” and included among its promises, “that I will say a good American ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in place of an Indian grunt ‘un-hum’ and ‘nup-um’ or a foreign ‘ya’ or ‘yeh’ and ‘nope.’”
The War to End All Wars failed to do that. But the Great War on language that began in 1917 rages on despite having met its goals. Today, with immigrants abandoning their first languages faster than ever and foreign-language enrollments still precarious, many Americans still regard English, and therefore America, as under attack. States like California and Arizona, where ongoing immigration still creates large numbers of minority-language speakers, ban bilingual education in the mistaken belief that this will hasten the switch to English, and Iowa, where only 3% of residents speak a language other than English (and many in that number speak English as well), revive the Babel Proclamation and declare English the state’s official language to save it from imminent destruction.
American culture has always been hostile to foreign languages, and to native languages that aren’t English, so even without World War I, we still wouldn’t be celebrating National Heritage Language Day. But even though the war didn’t make the world safe for democracy, it did its bit to make the country “safe” for English.