Friday, January 13, 2012

Did Congress ever contemplate adopting Hebrew as the official American language?

I was reading an article called 'Spreading the Hebrew word' which is a liiiiiitle overblown. The author writes that "Hebrew [was] a language so admired by early Americans that William Gifford argued in his Quarterly Review that some members of the Congress wanted it to become the national language rather than English." This contention has been repeated many times, but what is the evidence? At most, something quite different.

While Gifford was editor of the Quarterly Review, the source for this statement is an aside in an annotated edition of Ben Johnson's works, from 1816, not the Quarterly Review. Here is what Gifford wrote in his notes to The Alchemist:

According to him during the American Revolution a person of "that state" (i.e., New England) proposed to the Congress that English be suppressed and Hebrew raised in its stead.

H.L. Mencken famously called attention to this passage in his The American Language. He refers to the Marquis Francois Jean de Chastellux's book about his tour of America, from whence Gifford "seems to have picked up the story." Here is what Chastellux wrote, in the English translation of his book, Travels in North-America, in the years 1780, 1781, and 1782, printed in 1787:

"Some persons." No mention of Congress. As you cans see, these are slim reeds for this urban legend to rest on.


Here is a resolution passed by General Assembly of the state of Massachusetts-Bay in March of 1777:


  1. Man. I feel the same way I felt when I learned the dreidel was just a jewish version of the teetotum kids game. One by one, through this accursed internet, all the assumptions of my childhood are falling.

  2. While I'm a big proponent of the Truth is Stranger Than Fiction School, I also always say that if you stop and think about it for a minute, and it sounds absurd, it probably is.

  3. I think this post should have been written in Hebrew...

  4. How do you know that this was Gifford's source?

  5. Baruch, I don't. It is the most likely candidate, pointed out by Mencken, since no one has ever found anything else even hinting toward it. True, maybe something will turn up (I myself have found things which no one ever noted before). However, the proceedings of the American Congress are available, and no one has found anything like it in them.

    In any case, even if it was not Gifford's source, we can see that Gifford - which seems to be the source - only said that a person from [Massachusets?] proposed it to the Congress, which is hardly the same as the more grandiose version of popular legend, or "that some members of the Congress wanted it to become the national language rather than English" as per the article in the Jerusalem Post.

  6. I've heard Avshalom Kor tell this tale on many an occasion. One more myth busted..



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