True or False: German Almost Became the Official US Language

A German Soccer Fanatic. Blue shirt and face in national colors
Onkel Hans. Mehmed Zelkovic-Moment Open@getty-images

You might have heard the rumor that German almost became the official language of the United States of America. The legend usually goes something like this: “In 1776, German came within one vote of becoming America's official language instead of English.”

It is a story that Germans, German teachers and many other people like to tell. But how much of it is actually true?

At first glance it may sound plausible.

After all, Germans have played an important role in US history. Think of the Hessian soldiers, von Steuben, Molly Pitcher and all that. And it is estimated that about 17% of US-Americans have German ancestors.

But a closer look reveals several serious problems with this official-language story. First of all, the United States has never had an “official language”—English, German or any other—and doesn't have one nowadays. Nor was there any such vote in 1776. Congressional debate and a vote concerning German probably did take place in 1795, but dealt with translating US laws into German, and the proposal to publish laws in languages other than English was rejected a few months later.

It is likely that the myth of German as the official language of the US first arose in the 1930s, but it dates back to the country's earliest history and another similar story. Most scholars suspect that the US legend originated as a German-American Bund propaganda move aimed at giving German added weight via the spurious claim that it had very nearly become America's official language.

By mixing wishful thinking with certain historical events in Pennsylvania, the Nazi-influenced Bund produced the national vote story.

On reflection, it is ridiculous to think that German might have become the official language of the US. At no time in its early (!) history was the percentage of Germans in the United States ever higher than about ten percent, with most of that concentrated in one state: Pennsylvania.

Even in that state, at no time did the number of German-speaking inhabitants ever exceed one-third of the population. Any claim that German might have become the main language of Pennsylvania in the 1790s, when over 66 percent of the population spoke English, is simply absurd.

Clearly this is just another sad example of the power of propaganda. Although the outcome is rather insignificant--does it really matter whether a few people believe that this might have actually been true?--it draws a misleading portrait of the Germans and their influence in this world. 

But let's leave the idiotic Nazi world aside: What would it have meant, if the German language was chosen as the official language of the US? What does it mean that India, Australia and the USA officially speak English?

Edited by Michael Schmitz