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“Speak English…!”

February 21, 2016

whatever that means….

People being hypocritical and downright ugly when it comes to politics is nothing new. The bright side is, we aren’t having shootouts on the floor of Congress. Things are calmer, believe it or not, than they were in the early nineteenth century. That notwithstanding, I wince at some of the things candidates and/or their supporters will do in the race for the Most Crass trophy of the campaign season. If Trump wins the White House, it will be a rare Win-Win Bifecta.

The opposing camp is not devoid of turd-in-the-punchbowl moments, however, as in the recent Sanders rally in Las Vegas where civil rights icon Dolores Huerta was rudely shouted down with cries of “English only! ” when she volunteered to translate for Hispanic attendees. That’s quite a swan dive into the River Styx for a crowd so far left they have to rappel down the port side of the dais to find their platform.

The indignant bursts of angst over people having the audacity to speak anything but the precise language spoken and understood by the complainants is nothing new. In fact, it is extremely “human“, but usually originates with those of limited education and those afflicted with an iron clad “my way or the highway” or black and white manner of thinking.

Perhaps, though, it would be more effective to inquire whether or not those goose-stepping to the beat of “English only” chants are fluent in any of the more than 250 aboriginal languages spoken in North America today, just as they have been spoken for thousands of years. If that sounds unfair, perhaps we should limit it to English, as the protestors demand. OK.

Shall we require that speech be limited to the East Anglian English that characterizes the New England dialect? Perhaps the southern New England form that was greatly influenced by the Dutch colonists in what is now the New York City region, with the stereotypical “ Brooklynese ” as it’s banner would be preferred by some.

Die-hard Yankees sometimes roll their eyes at the sound of the “Southern accent” and consider it to be the sign of ignorance. To the contrary, the middle Atlantic areas of what today constitutes Virginia and the Carolinas were settled by the “upper crust” of England, the wealthy, and those loyal to, and supported by, the crown. All regions have “sub-dialects”, and the south is no exception. The “Black English” stands out, particularly today. It is a mixture of the ancestral African languages, the Southern English spoken by the slave owners, Creole, and more. As with any dialect or sub-dialect, it contains its own unique pronunciations, words, idioms, and cultural foundations. Cajun, of French-English-Southern derivation is another.

South central Pennsylvania, parts of northern Virginia, and New Jersey sport a noticeable dialect influenced by the origins of those who settled there as well, sometimes misnomered “Pennsylvania Dutch“. They were the Midlands English, the Welsh, German, and Scandinavian people who came here for various reasons. My teen years were spent in southeastern Pennsylvania and often heard things like “about the house” pronounced more like “aboot the hoose”.

When I lived in western North Carolina, there were isolated pockets of civilization back in the mountains, in what were called “coves” essentially dead end valleys, where there were still remnants of a dialect known as “Appalachian English“, with distinctive elements of a strong Celtic and Gaelic influence. It is a Scotch-Irish derivative with some Old English features.

Wherever Europeans settled, and wherever their descendents moved to as the West was settled, one can find words, phrases, pronunciations, often peculiar to limited local areas, reflecting the intermixing of older dialects and cultures.

We are indeed a “mixing bowl”, whether those who suffer cramps when they hear a word or pronunciation outside of their limited lexicon like it or not.

Ah, but that’s not all. The “English” spoken in England long before Europeans set foot on the American continents was itself fractured, and for the same reasons American English has no single pedigree.

Prior to the Norman invasion and conquest of England, Gaelic and Celtic tongues were long established, and the Anglo Saxons of Jutland and West Germany brought with them the earliest form of what we call English today. It would be unintelligible to any of us now without focused learning.

Early written materials were mostly in the West Saxon dialect of English. The other three primary dialects were Mercian, Northumbrian and Kentish, and none could easily understand or communicate with any of the other three. Not until the reign of Alfred the Great (877-899) were the separate “Englands” and their languages united under one crown and one “official” dialect. Besides defending against Viking raiders, his emphasis was on education and establishing “Wessux” as the preferred and recognized dialect. The teaching of English began to replace Latin as the scholarly language.

The Norman Conquest complicated things further. Not only did the French language become the “official” language of the country, but the Norman French culture changed England forever. Then, as we see today and as was mentioned at the beginning of this piece, discrimination and division of peoples by such minor factors as how words are pronounced, the practice wasn’t a new human behavior.

Those of Norman French origin, to whom the language and culture were the norm, and those who learned and adopted the language and culture, gaining favor in the eyes of the conquerors, represented the “upper classes”. The “native” English (those claiming the designation in 1066, though other cultures and languages had preceded them), were the lower, laboring classes. The English raised the crops and livestock consumed by the Normans. The English called their animals “cows” or “pigs”, which became beef or pork to the Norman French. Language determined social status, and many other things.

Hundreds of years later, our language continues to borrow from the languages and cultures of immigrants, perhaps most noticeable today being Hispanic, Asian, and perhaps soon the Middle Eastern peoples.

So, what is one to say, what is one to do, when admonished to “Speak English”? How does one separate the individual ingredients of “dump stew”?

Personally, I would do nothing, as someone who would make such a suggestion obviously has a severely limited understanding of what English actually is.

 

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