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Since You Asked

Language lost in the translation My uncle from Denver claims that German almost became the official language of the United States. He says that in George Washington's day, a proposal to do just that was defeated in Congress by just one vote.

We thought he was kidding, but he assured us this was a true story. What do you say?

' Joan B., Ashland

What's the matter, Joan, don't sprechen sie Deutsch?

This one has been around a very long time. Author, columnist and critic H.L. Mencken pooh-poohed it many years ago as a fable based on a misunderstanding, but like the Corvette you can get for &

36;500 because they can't get the dead-body smell out of it (somebody's cousin swears it's true, really), it stubbornly refuses to die.

The tale goes like this. One Franz Loher in 1847 reported that such a measure came before the state assembly of Pennsylvania, where many German immigrants were then settling, and the vote was 50-50.

The real story, according to Mencken, was that a measure was introduced in Congress in 1794 to have new laws published in German as well as in English so that immigrants from Germany could read them.

Maybe they were worried about ignorance being used as an excuse. Whatever the reason, a committee reported favorably on the measure. Finally brought to the floor for a vote, the proposal went down 42-41.

That's a far cry from German nearly becoming the official language of anybody but Germans. There was never any truth in the tale, but when has that ever gotten in the way of a good story?

Send questions to Since You Asked, Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to