New York It's been 30 years, but Dick Tucker has no trouble recalling the French signs posted inside city buses that crisscrossed Montreal: "In French, we say it this way. We don't say it that way."
Language is the words to the lullabies we were sung as babies, the fabric of our conversation around the dinner table, the whisper of prayer, the lessons of school. It clearly evokes strong feelings, framing not just our speech but also our thoughts.
As U.S. lawmakers renew the long-standing debate on whether to make English the nation's official language, those bus placards make clear that Americans are hardly the first to stare into the sometimes troubling mirror of linguistic self-image.
And just as in many other countries where people worry about protecting the mother tongue - ironically, often from the global spread of English - the debate here on whether English is endangered is largely about all sorts of matters that have little to do with the words we speak.
"Language is never about language," said Walt Wolfram, a social linguist at North Carolina State University. "Why should it be any different in the United States?"
That point is seconded by Tucker, an expert on language education, planning and policy at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University.
"The discussion is : related to fears of immigration issues. I think it's related to a worry about the changing demography of the United States. I think it's a worry about who will continue to have political and economic influence," Tucker said.
English's special status
That debate has recycled on and off for years. While the current push to declare English's primacy is relatively new - last week, the Senate passed two measures, one declaring English the national's official language and the other its "common and unifying" tongue - the notion of protecting the language has been kicked around almost since the nation's founding.
Before he became president, John Adams lobbied in 1780 for the creation of a national academy to refine, correct and improve the English language. Adams' proposal died, thanks to some lawmakers who saw it as a Royalist attempt to define personal behavior.
But the idea of recognizing the special status of English lived on.
Making English the nation's official language won wide support during and after World War I, when German-speaking immigrants constituted the nation's largest minority.
That era saw many of the accommodations that long been accorded to immigrants - including bilingual education - shelved, said James Crawford, author of "At War With Diversity: U.S. Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety."
The tide shifted in the 1960s, as immigration laws were relaxed. But opposition to bilingual education, which had resumed, swelled again in the late 1970s with concerns that immigrants were not learning English quickly enough.
That rekindled interest in English as an official language, a campaign made official with California Sen. S.I. Hayakawa's introduction in 1981 of the first bill introduced in Congress seeking such a change.
In 1983, Hayakawa founded U.S. English, the group that is still a primary mover behind efforts to assert a national language.
Still, the debate about language here has been tame.
"Language conflict is something that we've really largely avoided in contrast to many other countries," Crawford said. "English has been such a dominant force that assimilation has been very rapid."
Elsewhere, however, language has often stirred strong feelings.
Some 158 nations have included a specific measure in their constitutions promulgating one or more national languages, according to a survey by Eduardo Faingold, a professor at the University of Tulsa. The United States is one of the relatively few without such a measure.
Some nations' policing of language has gone far beyond the verbiage in their constitutions.
France's Academie Francaise is both admired and ridiculed for its dedication to protecting the "langue de la nation" from words borrowed from other tongues - particularly English.
Canadian lawmakers have labored to make clear that theirs is a bilingual nation, ensuring that everything from cereal boxes to highway signs are written in both French and English. Except, that is, in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, where English has been eliminated from most officially sanctioned language.
In the United States, most people do not speak a second language and experts say many remain uncomfortable hearing the unknown used around them.
"It's never about the language," Wolfram said. "It's always about the cultural behaviors that are symbolically represented by language. That's what scares us."