Wednesday, August 17, 2016

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Two American Languages?

In my quest to understand the “mutiny of the masses” that has
erupted in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, I have tried
to understand what’s on the minds of the American electorate.

The anger, frustration and anxiety of many in that electorate is
now well-documented, but I continue to think that these emotions
are not enough in themselves to explain the political upheaval and
the emergence of unlikely candidates such as Donald Trump and
Bernie Sanders,

In my ruminations I might have come across an additional clue.

Over the years, I have often discussed my interest in language
and its role in our lives. I have even written a few short books on
the subject. I have, as a writer, a particular interest in the language
of English, and more specifically our own version of it, American

Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the English written in the
U.S. maintained its overwhelming debt to the English spoken and
written in its former colonial master, Great Britain. Then, most
Americans, in fact, were descendants or settlers from England,
Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Frontier life, of course, produced
local and regional spoken dialects, but it took two American
figures, one who had almost no formal education, to begin to
create a truly “American” English. The first was a politician who
was mostly self-educated. That he also happened to be the most
revered president in the nation’s history is probably no accident.
Abraham Lincoln, even before he became president, wrote and
spoke in a distinctive and eloquent language which, even today
(175 years or so later,) has an originality and freshness unlike
any other. His language and thought had a universal influence.

Most of the world’s major languages were advanced to their
modern versions by literary writers. In the case of British English,
it was William Shakespeare, the great playwright. For Italian, it
was Dante, the great poet. For Russian, it was its sublime poet
Pushkin. For German, the poet Goethe; and for French, its
philosopher-essayist Montaigne.  The great Spanish novelist
Cervantes had very much to do with advance of his language.
In the new and first world republic, the United States of America,
it was Lincoln, the politician, and a midwestern humorist/novelist
Samuel Clemens (universally known by his pen name Mark Twain).

Like Lincoln slightly before him, Clemens captured an essence of
American spoken English as it had evolved for more than a
century on the western frontier and in the former colonial regions
of its eastern and southern settlements.

For more than a century afterwards, during a time of extraordinary
advances in communications technology, a shared American
English, albeit with its various local accents, has emerged.

Until now, that is.

The American experience, of course, is unique in the world for its
ethnic and religious complexity. The earliest British settlers were
followed by German, Italian, Jewish, Chinese, and Scandinavian
waves of immigration. French and Spanish North American
colonies were absorbed. Many other groups, with their own
languages and cultural traditions followed.

The printed word in newspapers, fiction and non-fiction books
helped share American English nationwide, as did the then-new
phenomena of the movies, radio, and television. The internet and
social media continue this process.

So we all speak the same “American,” yes?

Perhaps not. I think the “mutiny of the masses” might reveal that
there are now at least two American English languages. The first,
of course, the “American” spoken and written for the past century,
and celebrated in our literature, our films, on television and radio;
taught in our schools and universities, and articulated by our
establishment politicians and bureaucrats, is the language we all
think we know.

But there might be another language, unintimidated by established
assumptions, not “politically correct,” untaught in schools and
colleges, and shared primarily person-to-person and also on the vast
and uncontrolled internet. I do not claim to be able to define this
language, nor to be able to construct a dictionary of it, but I think it
is very much out there in the minds and on the lips of millions of
Americans I recently described as “voiceless, ignored and scorned”
by the new and established elites in our country.

A linguistic professor at Harvard might want to refute this, but two
unlikely figures, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, each in their
own way, embraced this notion and tried to speak to the millions of
Americans who perhaps speak another English.

These two American languages usually employ the same words, but
they often have quite different meanings to those who speak them and
understand in them. Most languages hold some ambiguities for those
who speak them, but rarely do so many words and phrases hold
such greatly different meanings.

I am not suggesting that any one meaning is more valid than another,
but simply that large numbers of Americans hold them.

This subject deserves, and I hope will receive, a more detailed
examination than I have made here. I might even have got it wrong.

But I think there is more to this than meets the ear.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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