By Dennis Barron
For perhaps the first time ever, a candidate was struck from an Arizona ballot for poor English. Judge John Nelson of the Yuma County Superior Court ruled that Alejandrina Cabrera cannot run for city council in the border town of San Luis because she doesn’t know enough English to fulfill her duties. The State Supreme Court upheld that decision on appeal.
90% of San Luis’ 25,000 residents speak Spanish as they go about their day. But Cabrera’s candidacy was challenged by the town’s mayor, a political rival who admits that his own English could be better, because Arizona law requires elected officials to speak English. A court-appointed sociolinguist determined that Cabrera possessed only survival-level English skills, and so Judge Nelson disqualified her.
Cabrera, an American citizen, appealed the decision, arguing that since the law doesn’t specify how much English an office-holder needs to know, it should be up to the voters and not the courts to decide if she is qualified. Arizona has one of the most restrictive official English laws in the country, but a close reading of that law shows that even if her English is halting, she should be back on the ballot.
The Arizona constitution, adopted in 1910 in anticipation of statehood, which was granted two years later, imposes an English requirement on some state officials: “The ability to read, write, speak, and understand the English language sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without the aid of an interpreter, shall be a necessary qualification for all state officers and members of the state legislature” (Art. XX, sec. 8).
Above: Article XX, sec. 7, of the 1910 Arizona Constitution provides for secular public schools which “shall always be conducted in English.” Below: Sec. 8 of the constitution also requires “state officers” and members of the legislature to know enough English to do their jobs without the help of a translator.
The requirement — with its reference to interpreters — is aimed at those Arizonans who speak Spanish or Native American languages, but it only covers legislators and “state officers,” defined in article V of the constitution (as amended in 1992) as the governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, attorney general, and supervisor of public instruction.
Reporting to Congress on the applications of Arizona and New Mexico for statehood in 1911, the House Committee on the Territories forced New Mexico to drop a similar language qualification for office holders from its 1910 constitution (Art. 21, se
By Dennis Baron
There’s a new breed of dictionary, untouched by human hands. The New York Times reports that teams of programmers have developed software that automates the making of dictionaries, eliminating the need for human lexicographers, who may favor some words and neglect others. These new dictionary droids comb the web, selecting words in context, defining them automatically based on that surrounding context, and tabulating the definitions and citations for subscribers to consult online. And they do it all faster than you can say Google.
The web has made possible a democratizing of the dictionary. There are no editors with their annoying biases to stand in the way, so with just a couple of clicks users can see words in their natural habitat and choose exactly which one best suits their purpose. To paraphrase the old New Yorker cartoon, on the internet, everybody’s a lexicographer.
No human dictionarian sifts through the massive online corpus to figure out the various senses and connotations of each word, its history, etymology, or pronunciation. This leaves users free to do the job of lexicography themselves. They can even assign a word to any part of speech they want, or make up a new part of speech entirely if they like. There are no usage labels warning that a particular word might not be national, current, or reputable, or that some readers might find it stuffy or offensive. And there’s no grammar nazi shaking a minatory finger and muttering, “dictionary droid ain’t a word.” I just used dictionary droid online. It will soon be collected by a dictionary droid. Ergo, dictionary droid is a word. And if you don’t know what dictionarian or minatory mean, you can find them in the OED, a dictionary compiled by all-too-fallible humans.
What would the old lexicographers think about the web’s new dictionary droids? Back in the eighteenth century, Dr. Johnson’s ’net was “any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.” That definition sounds like it was created by a droid, and if Johnson actually had to define internet today, he’d probably come up with something equally convoluted.
The nineteenth-century lexicographer Noah Webster had his own word quirks. Webster preferred bridegoom to bridegroom because it comes from the Old English word guma, meaning ‘man,’ not groom, which refers to ‘someone charged with caring for horses,’ and he wanted to respell deaf as deef, to reflect how it was pronounced by his fellow New Englanders. So I imagine Webster would have changed lots of the spellings he found online and taken out all the dirty words, which is what he did when he translated the Bible after he finished making dictionaries. Finally, James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, would probably give up the 3×5 slips on which he wrote each word, together with a context illustrating it, and make a PowerPoint stack for every word instead.
Above: Dr. Johnson’s definition of network, from his Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Below: Noah Webster’s definition of bridegoom, from An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). In 1833 Webster published his translation of the Bible, which used euphemisms instead of dirty words, “language which cannot be uttered in company without a violation of decorum,” so that women and children could