Just the other day I heard someone at a neighboring table in a greasy spoon here in Portage ranting about how immigrants to this country need to learn and exclusively use our American language. I had to swallow a laugh.
Our American lingo? No doubt the man meant English, and I remember George Bernard Shaw’s great quip, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” Lots of tongue-in-cheek truth to that, but there are some real facts that could bear some light.
English is a relative newcomer to the world’s languages. For a long time, Anglise came before English, Anglise being the name of the dialect used by the Angles of Anglo-Saxon invasion fame. As angelcynn (the race of angles) preceded “the English” or England (the unified political unit). Before English of Anglise there was Angllcynn, sort of the form we now call Old English, which looks stunningly alien to most modern readers, but was used for about 700 years after the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. Still, it was not the language of the land. Not yet. Historians tell us that he main and almost the only speakers of Anglise were illiterate pagans.
The Angles came on ships from what’s now northern Germany and Denmark and they settled in the area now called East Anglia and moved east, and later north. The Saxons settled the south-east of the English island in the region now called Wessex. The number of people speaking Old English were few and there was no writing in it and no printing presses until not all that long (historically speaking) before our boy Shakespeare plied his trade as a playwright in London.
England was still England, not yet Britain, Great or otherwise. In 1169 some folks from Pembrokeshire landed in southeast Ireland near Wexford, but it would not be until the 17th century before English would be fully established on the Emerald Isle. Slainte. Meanwhile, it wasn’t much in England either. Historians generally look at the English language as developing and settling into two phases, from roughly 450-500 up until arond 1450-1500, which is when modern English began to develop.
A thousand years ago the English language had about 50,000 words. Today it has, not counting scientific terms, somewhere between 700,000 and 2 million words. Obviously counting is not a clear-cut deal. The real point here is that native English, the old root Anglise or whatever it was called was fairly small, but it grew because it absorbed everything it came in contact with. Very few of the new words were made up whole. Mostly they are borrowed from other languages, made from compounding old stuff or borrowed stuff, by putting wrinkles into existing stuff, or re-finding old dead words and blowing life into them again. Words, like people, are born, last a certain amount of time and die. Unlike people they can be brought back to life, but this isn’t common.
Linguists and historians tell us that English has been around for about 1,500 years, which ain’t long in the world scheme of things. Romans came, then other invaders, like he Angles and Saxons, Danes, the French, the Dutch, the whole legions of people and Englishmen traded all around the Med and later the world and all the time the language grew, and then they started colonies here, we kicked their butts out, declared ourselves to be the United States of American and began developing English based on all the inputs here, from Native Americans to slaves, to French, Spanish,. Portuguese, Dutch, Germans, Chinese, Japanese, all of those folks who came to this country legally and illegally and became part of us. Take a breath.
We are a gargantuan pile of ethnic, cultural and racial mutts in this country and our language reflects who we are. English is the most flexible, wide open linguistic tool on the planet. We can use our unique tongue to turn beautiful and powerful thoughts into beautiful and powerful words that not only thrill us, but move us to action. Yah, there’s some pragmatic reasons for their to be a common language in our land, but it’s not something to be forced. The sheer magnitude and variety of the strength of our language and what that confers on all of us should remind us of the power of diversity. If all that input has made our language what it is, the force that it is, why can’t we recognize the diversity of cultures in immigrants and what that has made of us and will continue to make of us, if we encourage it. Even Arabic is with us every day and sometime when I have more time to get my thoughts straight, I’ll talk a little about the role of Arab culture and the language on our own.
I am a lucky man to be born here and to have the privilege and a tiny bit of talent to allow me to recognize and take advantage of the great gift of our language. Good for me. Good for all of us. Down the road, we can expect even greater changes in English as the mix of new immigrants switches from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and yes, even Europe, to Pacific Oceana and Asia major and minor. Keep in mind sportsfans. We are all Africans at the genetic level.