A New Kind of English

Human Rights

What will Americans be like linguistically in a century from now? Given that America will still be a world-spanning empire and civilization, we can look for cultural clues in earlier empires and civilizations.

Dialects are variants of established languages. Pidgins are amalgams of two languages. English is a pidgin. In the 14th century English storytellers, notably Chaucer, decided to fuse French, the language of the Norman conquerors of Britain, with the common Anglo-Saxon language (itself a pidgin of two Germanic languages).

But a more dramatic pidginization occurred two centuries later when the Mughal (Mongol) conquerors of India created an empire that lasted three centuries. Now, despite many cultural variants, the current official languages, Hindi for India and Urdu for Pakistan, both have their origins in "Hindustani," the pidgin name used by the Mughals and then by the imperial British.

American troops in Iraq and Iraqi merchants are already creating pidgins of English and the Iraqi dialects of Arabic. That is similar to what Mughal soldiers did when they went into town to haggle. Urdo/Urdu is a Turco-Mongolian word that meant a "military encampment." If American soldiers and merchants should still be stationed in Iraq in 2104 then it's a good chance that a new language will have arisen, e.g. "Amerarab." And then some writers, like Chaucer, will see if they can sell a novel written in Amerarab.

When the Western Roman Empire officially fell in 476, Britain's Latin-speaking population, mostly soldiers, were worried what to do. But contemporary English archeologists found out what Roman soldiers did. The archeologists carried out diggings in all towns that had the suffix "chester," an Anglo-Saxon variant of Latin "castrum," for military encampment. There are dozens of cities and towns in England with the suffix "chester." Since most of the Roman military encampments were built by a single plan, the archeologists could judge what happened before and after 476. The archeologists concluded that most soldiers remained in Britain and became merchants.

In the heartland of the USA a new pidgin is arising called "Spanglish." Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington warns Americans that Spanglish already poses a mortal threat to English. But there is a good chance that in 2104 Spanglish storytellers will replicate the historical formation of English. They will create a new pidgin language that has a Spanish syntax, just as English is based on an Anglo-Saxon syntax.

African Americans speak English as do their millions of kinfolk in Africa and the Caribbean. But they also speak dialects of English that other Americans have difficulty understanding. Some linguists classify the Gullah language, spoken in the North Carolina islands, as a pidgin that is based on West African syntax. But others say Gullah is a dialect of English, just as French, Spanish and Romanian began as offshoots of Latin.

I remember an incident when I was in Guyana in South America. Guyana's population is 40 percent black, mainly middle-class, and 5 percent East Indian, mainly rural. Once, when traveling inland, I heard a number of my Guyanan companions speaking a language I had never heard. When I came close to our table where we were eating, they quickly shifted to English. I sat down and waited politely until I could ask them what language they were speaking. When I finally asked them, to a man they said in unison: English. But I persisted and soon enough they gave in and said: Creole. I was still not satisfied. I knew that Creole was a kind of dialect but also an intellectual word I rarely heard from ordinary people. Then one of the men at the table said, "Yes, we call both English, but we have two kinds of English, one for our people and one for outsiders." I then said, "I'm the outsider." And we all laughed.

African Americans, especially from the South, have family get-togethers that can include many hundreds of participants. They, too, according to African-American friends, speak two kinds of English. Yet, the attempt by many African Americans to get Ebonics, a dialect of English, recognized as a valid language failed because Ebonics is a private, not a public, language.

Back in the early 1800s the "Massachusetts Reformers" like Horace Mann had educational visions of what the new America should be. The reformers were deeply affected by ancient Greek civilization, what they overlooked was that the Greeks could not get together to face a mortal danger coming from Macedonia. Not long after they preached their visions of the new America, the Civil War broke out and the North came close to losing at Gettysburg.

The Massachusetts Reformers wanted to create a new nation and nationality. They wanted all people to become part of one national identity. But African Americans in the east and south, Latinos and Asians in the west, and indigenous people everywhere in the USA, have insisted that their identities must also be preserved. From these peoples, who now are a majority in California, the core issue is language, and their efforts to retain their collective identities will lead to the transformation of American English as the language of all.

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