English is Georgia’s official language; guess who’s breaking the law?


Should English be the official language in Georgia?

Personally, I would think so. But obviously thousands and thousands of our best educated people in Georgia disagree.

It seems that every ten years or so our Georgia legislature gets excited about this. In 1986, our legislature adopted a resolution making English the official state language.

Thinking that was not enough, in 1996 our Georgia General Assembly enacted a statute (code section 50-3-100) designating English as our official language and requiring its use in governmental documents and records.

That code section comes right after code sections designating the tiger swallowtail as our official state butterfly (50-3-62), the gopher turtoise as our official state reptile (50-3-63), and the Hawkinsville Civitan Club’s “Shoot the Bull” barbecue championship as the official state beef barbecue championship cookoff (50-3-75).

Still some of our Georgia folks would stubbornly not learn English. So the legislature gave this one more try in 2008 by proposing an amendment to our state constitution that would make English our official state language. That proposal (HB 413) didn’t quite make it, as it was sent somewhere to be restudied.

So there we are, with a fine law on the books for 14 years requiring the use of English in public meetings and official documents. So what has it accomplished?

Alas, not much, it seems.

The worst offenders against our English as official language law are the judges and lawyers of this state, plus courthouse personnel, law enforcement and tax officials who persist in using Latin terms to confuse the public.

The Supreme Court of Georgia might be seen as the worst offender, as its justices regularly sit under a marble inscription which reads Fiat Justitia, Ruat Caelum (let justice be done, though the heavens fall). Then they and the entire legal establishment consider issues that involve certiorari, mandamus, habeas corpus, and lot of hocus pocus.

Their only defense is that they are not aware they are breaking the law, but has ignorance of the law ever been an excuse? Ignorentia legis excusat neminem. (Ignorance of the law excuses nobody.)

Meanwhile the folks in the sheriff’s office deal with FiFas, which are writs of fieri facias, which in turn translates as “make it happen.” When reporting on papers they attempted to serve (deliver?) without success to somebody, they often come up with a return (answer) of non est, a short Latin expression meaning the fellow was not there and they couldn’t find him.

As you can see, even the folks who enforce the law violate it. Ignorentia legis at work. Of course, sheriffs can be at the receiving end of a writ of habeas corpus, which is a court order to bring the prisoner over to the courtroom.

I won’t bore you ad nauseam with all the ways judges and lawyers violate the law. They’ve been using something other than English for centuries, and turning that ship around will take time no matter what the legislature does.

Our property taxes are known as ad valorem taxes. Anyone who owns a car pays one and probably wishes he could argue it is unconstitutional to charge a tax expressed in a language other than English. That’s probably why the legislature is restudying its proposed amendment to the Georgia constitution. (We’d have to vote on it, unless the governor writes veto on the bill.)

Which goes to show that you can pass all the laws you want in the world, and you’ll get the same results as King Canute who ordered the tide to stop rising. That was his kingly prerogative, and if he had timed this right, at high tide, he would have had the impression he was a very powerful king indeed.

In case you should think I am being unduly harsh toward our government and our legal establishment, let me add a word about doctors.

Doctors of all stripes do like to use Latin terms too. A guy who is plumb crazy is said to have dementia, the Latin term for the condition of someone who is non compos mentis. Using Latin makes the term politically correct, though it now seems illegal.

What is most interesting to me is the way doctors (including dentists) write prescriptions. They will write q.i.d. or t.i.d. or p.r.n., and we’re supposed to be awed by this display of medical knowledge. This is Latin, but it is only initials, which is why they think they can get away with breaking the law which requires them to write in English.

Aren’t prescriptions official documents? Isn’t it against the law to falsify a prescription?

As it turns outs, q.i.d. stands for quater in die, or four times a day. Don’t you think the doctor could have written 4x/day instead? Yes he could, but habitual offenders are hard to turn around, and frankly doctors have been in competition with lawyers in the hocus pocus department.

T.i.d. is three per day (the t being for ter), and p.r.n., or pro re nata, means “as needed” (literally “for the thing as it emerges”). Fortunately, the pharmacist translates all that for us on the prescription bottle.

I don’t know how much time is spent in medical, nursing and pharmacy schools teaching that stuff to students, but to my mind it is a big waste. Those who want to reform medical care might give this some thought.

The next time you encounter a politician who rants and raves about making English our official language, consider he just might have been to that Hawkinsville Shoot the Bull barbecue, and take a grain of salt p.r.n.

[A resident of Fayette County, Claude Y. Paquin is a retired lawyer and actuary who studied Latin for six years in his youth.]