Wednesday, January 9, 2013

State mottoes

Since I've been writing about languages in U.S. geographical names, I wanted to say a word about state mottoes.  The vast majority of these are in English or Latin -- 20 Latin, 24 English.  I looked for geographical patterns in the language used, but found none.  Of the original 13 colonies (which one might expect to have used more Latin), six are in Latin and six in English.  (More on the exception in a moment.)  From a few mottoes that I knew, I thought Southern states might prefer Latin, but I counted six Latin and six English there, as well.  The one area that my hunch seemed a little more on target was that Midwestern states preferred English mottoes two to one.

Six of the eight mottoes that predate 1800 are in Latin, but the oldest of all is the single English word "Hope," adopted by Rhode Island in 1644.  It is interesting that two states with English mottoes have adopted new, Latin mottoes since the turn of the millennium, Kentucky and North Dakota.  It would be interesting to know why they decided to make a change.

Six states have mottoes in languages other than English and Latin.  Minnesota's motto is not even really a phrase, but simply "L'etoile du nord," "The North Star."  Montana's motto is "Oro y plata," meaning "gold and silver."  I suppose it makes sense that a state with a Spanish name would have a Spanish motto, but it seems odd since Spain had so little to do with the settlement of this land near Canada.  California's motto, "Eureka," also pays tribute to the gold rush.  It is technically Greek, but eureka has also been adopted directly into English.

Two states have mottoes from indigenous languages.  Hawaii's is "Ua mau ke ea o ka ʻāina i ka pono," meaning "The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness."  Washington doesn't even have an official motto -- the only state without one -- but it's unofficial motto, "Alki," is a Chinook word meaning "by and by."

Finally, Maryland's state motto is in Italian:  "Fatti maschii, parole femine," meaning "manly deeds, feminine words."  It was the family motto of Lord Baltimore, who founded the colony, so it has a strong historical basis.  It is a wonder that feminists haven't complained about the sexism inherent in this motto, especially since Maryland is one of the most liberal states in the country.  Probably the motto owes its survival to the utter insignificance of state mottoes in general, although I would be surprised if someone didn't complain about it eventually.

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