The Anglic Pidgin

It is with some trepidation that one takes issue with a premier essayist, especially the incomparable James Lileks. In a brilliant post on the London attacks, Mr. Lileks says:

     It is possible that a multiethnic society can unify along the lines of national identity; America proves that. But our foundational concepts are different. We’re the only true transnational country, inasmuch as our ideas are infinitely applicable. Our ethnic complexity began with refugees from all points of Europe, which is different from basing your national identity on beef-eating tars from Wales, Scotland, and assorted shires. Our ideals surpass ethnic identity, which is why a recent immigrant can get a lump in his throat when he hears the national anthem. [emphasis added]

Mr Lileks: our ethnic complexity began in the 17th and 18th centuries. Well before the arrival of the groups you mentioned, the unique character of our nation was formed from the mix of three distinct peoples: the English, the black Africans who were their slaves, and the Scots-Irish. The English brought the democratic process, the equality of independent freeholders, and rule of English Common Law; the black Africans contributed the ultimate refusal to be broken by involuntary servitude; the Scots and Irish brought a fierce and martial independent spirit, a strong tradition of self-reliance, and a suspicion of all ruling elites. The traditions of the Scots-Irish mixed with the heritage of slavery to produce the modern “redneck culture” as described by Thomas Sowell in Black Rednecks And White Liberals. This mixture established the essence of the American character.

To this brawling bastard child of the British Isles came the later arrivals, all the tired and the poor from Italy and Russia and Norway and Germany and Poland, and later the huddled masses from Vietnam and Korea and El Salvador and Nigeria, fleeing despotism, war, and destitution. People who yearn to breathe free still yearn to come to America.

What is it about this Anglo-Saxon hybrid — this English, African, and Scots-Irish mongrel — that so easily accepts and incorporates all the wretched refuse of these polyglot arrivals?

The answer lies in the English language itself. Old English was an inflected Germanic tongue. The Anglo-Saxons who spoke its various dialects first united against the Danes under King Alfred, creating what was to become the bulldog English character.

But the English language took a severe blow from the Norman invasion, dropping its inflexions, simplifying its syntax, and borrowing massively from Norman French. So modern English is essentially a pidgin: a jury-rigged composite of languages thrown together so that the servants and vassals of the Normans could communicate with their masters as well as among themselves.

English became a voracious borrower of other peoples’ words. Even before the Conquest English had been liberally salted with Irish, Welsh, Gaelic, Danish and Norse; afterwards, besides the French contributions, words were borrowed from Arabic, Latin, Greek, German, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish throughout the Renaissance. Nowadays we take in Japanese, Hindi, and Malay with aplomb. Arabic is contributing a new batch: witness “jihad”, “dhimmi”, and “kufar”.

As an analytic language with simplified syntax and flexible forms, English easily incorporates and adapts new elements. Anglo-Saxon culture, particularly in America, parallels the language in its welcome of the new arrival.

The United States differs from Britain because we threw off the yoke of those Norman overlords; we decided to govern ourselves. Suspicion of elites is bred in our Celtic bones, so it comes naturally to us to extend a welcoming hand to the stranger descending the gangplank beside the golden door.

6 thoughts on “The Anglic Pidgin

  1. Re US founding ethnicities: everyone forgets the Dutch. NYC was New Amsterdam before it was renamed! Quite a few early Germans, too: the Pennsylvania Dutch are actually the Pennsylvania Deutsch (Germans). (Early American anglophones were as clueless about other cultures then as now, it seems.) And the entire SW and much of the SE was Spanish-speaking.

  2. Heck, I didn’t forget the Dutch. Or the Germans, French, Spanish, Swedes, and Indians. Delaware was originally a Swedish colony, and then it became Dutch.

    The thing is, none of these groups were large enough to contribute significantly to the formation of the American character. But it’s possible that 50% or more of the settlers in the 18th century were Scots-Irish. That makes them significant.

  3. “The United States differs from Britain because we threw off the yoke of those Norman overlords; we decided to govern ourselves.”

    Do you seriously believe that Americans are less elite-governed than the English?

    Or do you mean that the English elite but not the American elite are Norman? It’s an extraordinary anachronism if you believe trhat the present English elite are significantly Norman?

    And why bring language into it at all? Both the USA and the UK use the same language (with minor exceptions)

  4. First of all, what constitutes the elite in the USA is much more fluid than in Britain. I’ve lived in both countries, and I know from experience how much less class mobility there is in the UK. Or ask John Derbyshire at NRO.

    A good example is Ted Kennedy. His ancestors were no-account Irish, and then later bootleggers during Prohibition. Now he is one of the Anointed.

    And I was just having fun with the “yoke of the Normans” line, having them stand in metaphorically for the “ruling class”. I sincerely regret that the whimsical nature of my metaphor did not come through. I shall try to be more literal-minded in the future. NOT.

    Finally, I brought language into it to examine the effect that it has on the development of national character, and to show that, despite the common language, the national characters of Britain and the USA have diverged somewhat. It seems that I have failed to get my point across. Oh well.

  5. English became a voracious borrower of other peoples’ words.

    Interesting claim. But Japan, too, is a voracious borrower. They have thousands of words borrowed from European languages (mostly English in the last few decades, but German and French before). Their kanji are Chinese characters grafted into their lan guage. And Japan is arguably a very insular country. Japanese are very curious about foreign culture, but the emphasis is arguably always on the foreign.

    More seriously, the ongoing change in the American immigration from assimilation to preservationist multiculturalism means that today’s immigration may be changing our ability to “welcome the new arrival.” It remains to be seen.

  6. You’re right about Japanese. And there are other languages that borrow a lot of words.

    But then there are languages that don’t like to borrow, such as French. And look at what’s happening to the French.

    You’re right about the multi-culti fad. But it may be that it’s a very shallow graft onto our culture. Let’s hope so.

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