If you ever doubted that the saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same" really has any merit, wonder no longer. It's true, and it seems to apply as much to the U.S. Congress as anything else.

Take the recent introduction in the House of Representatives of H.R. 4408 - the National Language Act - by Rep. Peter King of New York. It's far from the first time King has sponsored a bill on this topic. In fact, he or someone else has brought forth legislation on the subject for the past 20 years. But just as Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado's perennial call to build a wall between the United States and Mexico to stem illegal entry to this country has evolved through time from the butt of jokes to serious consideration, King's current version also might be slated for greater attention.

The main thrust of his latest bill remains the same: declaring the English language to be the official language of the United States and mandating that all official government activities must be rendered in English.

That would mean that "unless specifically stated in applicable law, no person has a right, entitlement or claim to have the Government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English."

King's bill also would repeal bilingual election requirements and instruct immigration officials to administer the oath of allegiance to new citizens only in English.

Draconian as this might seem in today-s politically correct atmosphere, this is far from a new issue. In fact, the discussion of "official language" goes back more than 200 years, nearly to the beginnings of this nation.

It usually flares afresh when some new wave of immigration brings large numbers of non-English speakers from a particular place into the country, raising fears among those already here that some other culture could supplant life as they know - and like - it.

It's without a doubt a touchy subject. After all, it's one thing to visit San Francisco's Chinatown or New York's little Italy and revel in their cultural differences - made even more enjoyable by the difference in language - and quite another suddenly to find yourself a member of the ethnic, lingual and perhaps political minority in the hometown where you've spent much of your life.

Maybe that seems parochial, if not paranoid, but consider for a moment the change that has occurred in this country.

When the great influxes of immigrants occurred in this country in the late 18th and early 19th century, most of those who arrived wanted nothing more than to learn the English language, get a good job to support their families and become American, as opposed to whatever they had been before.

Many continued to observe their own particular customs and speak their native languages at home or within their immediate communities, but assimilation - not seeming different from anyone else - was their ultimate goal, and the quicker the better.

In recent decades, that attitude has changed. Now, many groups coming into this country seem to shun assimilation and instead expect - even demand - separate-but-equal privileges. That's what rankles so many in the long-established population.

It's an unfortunate change, from the world's proverbial melting pot to a bottle of oil and vinegar dressing.

Where once we blended together regardless of our national origins because we shared a common public language, we now nod and smile when occasionally shaken together by chance encounters but afterward quickly separate into our own narrow groupings.

That's not a good thing, for reasons we've seen in abundance during the past several years, not only in this country but throughout the world.

People always will make war against each other because they don't share the same religion, culture or political ideology.

But this country has been proof positive for more than two centuries that by comparison, a shared language goes a long way - although admittedly not far enough in some cases - toward eradicating discrimination and fostering true equality.

For those who say they have a right to maintain their own culture and language, the answer must be, of course you do. However, while cultural ties and traditions should be respected within families, and even communities, we also must recognize that the great strength of our nation has come from our Latin motto, "E pluribus unum."

It means, "Out of many, one." The phrase was adopted as a national motto in 1776 and is on the Great Seal of the United States and on United States currency. It sums up more simply and eloquently than anything else the strength this nation derives from the shared allegiance of its citizens. Like it or not, a shared language seems to be an important element of that success.

• Randi Bjornstad is a reporter for The Register-Guard in Eugene.

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