Idiots, racists, and old-fashioned xenophobes took to social media this past weekend to express their disgust with Coca-Cola. The international beverage company had the audacity to run an ad during the Super Bowl that featured people singing "America the Beautiful" in different languages. This, of course, was unacceptable to those who believe that the U.S. should be an English-only zone. And these mouthbreathing dunderheads would've felt right at home in states like Iowa and Nebraska during World War I.
Few states were more harsh about the languages that its citizens spoke than Iowa. Like many Midwestern states, Iowa had a sizable German population and this fact infuriated Iowan nativists when the U.S. entered WWI in 1917. The fear of new immigrants (from Germany and elsewhere) manifested itself in strict language laws dictating how people could communicate in public, in schools, and even over the phone.
On May 23, 1918 Iowa Governor William L. Harding (picture above in 1915) issued the "Babel Proclamation," forbidding people in the state from using any language but English. The governor's edict was largely aimed at Iowa's large German population, but Harding didn't think that just banning German went far enough. No, all languages that weren't English would have to go.
Governor Harding had a habit of referring to the English language as "American" and went so far as to say that God only heard prayers in English. Needless to say, Iowa's governor quickly became a punchline in some parts of the country. But not before he caught plenty of people for the crime of communicating in the wrong language.
Communications technologies proved to be the greatest weapon in Iowa's war on dangerous foreign languages. Party-line conversations were quite common in the 1910s, and many people in rural communities didn't own their own phones. This made it easier for English-tongued vigilantes to spy and rat on their fellow Iowans who dared to speak other languages.
In June of 1918, less than a month after Gov. Harding's Babel Proclamation went into effect, four women in Scott County were hauled in for speaking German over the phone. All of them were fined between $25 and $100. One of the women, identified as Mrs. Herman Lippold, received the largest fine of the group, presumably because she also had a German emblem on the family's barn. "The emblem was ordered removed and an American flag draped over the spot," the local newspaper reported.
But Iowa wasn't the only one to inflict draconian, anti-American laws against its citizens. Nebraska also forbade the public use of all languages that weren't English, though talking on the phone seemed more safe than doing so in Iowa. Nebraska's English-only laws even made their way to the Supreme Court in 1923 with Meyer v. Nebraska. Meyer, a teacher at a small religious school, had been convicted of teaching the Bible in German to a young student. Though initially convicted and fined, the case was overturned by the Supreme Court which found Nebraska's language law to be in violation of the 14th Amendment.
While Iowa and Nebraska may have had the strictest language laws during WWI, other states tried to brutally restrict the languages of residents. Indiana instituted anti-German language laws, with penalties of up to $100 in fines (about $1,500 adjusted for inflation) and/or 6 months in jail for any offenders. Oregon made it illegal to print newspapers and pamphlets in anything but English.
Even New York City banned the teaching of German in the city's schools during the war. The May 25, 1918 New York Times heralded the decision, calling it "sound, hard common sense." In fact, the paper didn't think the ban went far enough, believing that the time limitation ("during the war") was unnecessary. Why not ban the teaching of German forever? Spanish would be more helpful looking toward the country's "Pan American future," the newspaper reasoned. And French is more "cosmopolitan and urbane with a longer and nobler literature."
By far, the harshest English-only laws were in the Midwest. It's estimated that about 18,000 people were charged in the Midwest alone for simply speaking a forbidden language during World War I. Oklahoma was a little late to the English-only party, with the state legislature declaring in 1919 that English was the official language of the state and forbidding any other language from being taught to children grades 1-8. Much like in Indiana, offenders of the language law faced up to $100 fines and 6 months in prison. The law wasn't repealed until 1949.
As author James Crawford notes, it was a dark time for people who simply wanted to communicate in their native tongue. But it also brought the issue of language rights to the courts, helping to establish the legal foundation for the freedom to speak how you like here in the 21st century.
Perhaps the greatest irony of all this English-only hysteria during World War I was that a non-English language was used by a small band of American forces, aiding in some crucial victories against the Germans. That language? The Native American dialect of the Choctaw tribe. That could certainly put a whole new spin on Governor Harding's insistence that people only speak "American."
Sources: The English-Only Question: An Official Language for Americans? by Dennis E. Baron (1992); From "German Days" to "100 Percent Americanism" by Tina Stewart Brakebill (2002); Loose Ends in a Tattered Fabric: The Inconsistency of Language Rights in the United States by James Crawford (2007); Selling the Great War by Alan Alexrod (2009)