Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A rose by any other name

“A nation is a society united by a delusion about its ancestry and a common fear of its neighbors.” – W.R. Inge

The Blog Fodder has been doing a series of posts about Russia and Ukraine, their shared history, the differing perspectives, depending on whether you're Russian, Ukrainian, Tatar, Galician, whatever, about that shared history, the different ethnic groups, and the different languages spoken in Ukraine. The official language is Ukrainian, but many people speak Russian as their first language. When the Soviet Union fell apart, there was apparently a half-hearted attempt to make Ukraine an officially bilingual country, but everyone -- even the ethnic Russians -- hated Russia too much to let that happen. It's all very interesting. Also very depressing, of course, but definitely interesting.  

This whole Ukrainian mess got me to thinking about one of the things that does distinguish the United States from the rest of the world. The Blog Fodder mentions that historically in what is now the U.S., English was the language of the colonizers and in most cases indigenous populations hate the colonizers and want nothing to do with their language. He draws parallels between Ukraine and the despised Russian colonists and the American Revolution and the revolutionaries deciding between English and German. It is an interesting analogy, but with one big difference. Yes, it's true there was, in fact, a brief attempt at not using English in the nascent United States. There was a movement to make German the official language because English was the language used by the despised English king George III and his minions. Pennsylvania had a zillion German colonists, so there were a lot of German speakers. 

Well, German would have been the language of the colonizers, too. Not only was the English king a member of the German house of Hanover, all the colonizers -- German, French, English, whatever -- did a really nice job of wiping out the local languages. A noncolonial language back in the 18th century would have been one of the Algonquin or Iroquoian languages common on the East Coast and in Canada. If I wanted to go back 300 years and speak a language native to North America, I'd be signing up for classes at the wemowin wadiswan over in Baraga. 

And if for some bizarre reason I felt compelled to speak the language(s) of my ancestors, my assorted grandparents and great grandparents who emigrated from Europe, I'd have to draw straws or flip coins to decide between Cornish, English, Finnish, Swedish, and possibly Russian. My mother used a lot of Russian terms for common objects instead of the more usual (for this area) Finnish ones so I'm willing to bet her mother grew up in a household where Russian was spoken almost as much as Finnish was. 

I am, in short, a typical American, a product of our cliched melting pot. I engage in symbolic ethnicity much the same way persons of Irish or German or Italian descent engage in symbolic ethnicity relating to their ancestry: I like certain traditional (albeit Americanized) Finnish foods, like pulla, cheer for the Finnish hockey team during the winter Olympics, think the movie "Leningrad Cowboys Go America" is a work of genius, and listen to Finnish bands like Nightwish. I will also remind people that the Cornish invented pasties, not the Finns (as many misguided Yoopers seem to believe), because, after all, I did have a Cornish grandmother. Like a lot of people, my immigrant ancestors were primarily monolingual (their native language with just enough English to get by) and tended to cluster in ethnic enclaves, but their descendants are widely scattered, married into different ethnic groups and religions, and any nationalist fervor they may possess is for the U.S. as a whole, not just a part of it or for a country they've never seen. 

And you know what? Much as I despair sometime about my fellow Americans and their belief in American exceptionalism, this is something we've gotten right. There are still clusters of ethnic enclaves but they're not nearly as rigidly defined or as common as they were 100 years ago. With a few rare exceptions, none of us (the descendants of the colonizers) give a rat's patoot about what languages our grandparents spoke or what happened when someone redrew a border 20, 50, or 100 years ago. Yes, there's some paranoia among right-wing fringe groups about Mexico trying to reclaim what we stole back in 1845, but I'd be willing to bet 99% of the U.S. population neither knows nor cares about that particular long ago war. The more generations away we are from the "old country" and old conflicts, the less anyone cares about the past. One of the same things that can be a weakness is also one of our greatest strengths. Americans as a whole live in the present. Granted, some fringe groups seem determined to return us to an earlier decade (or century), but they're a minority. (There are also major ethical issues with forced assimilation, but that's a subject for a different post.)

In any case, I look at how messed up the former Soviet bloc countries are and find myself thinking, come on, people, stop obsessing about stupid stuff like whose great grandparents were forcibly removed to Siberia by a tyrant who's been dead for over 60 years or what language your granny spoke and focus on the stuff that counts, like eliminating corruption. Which is more important? Having the guy at the DMV (or its equivalent) speaking the language of your ancestors or being able to register your car or being able to get a driver's license without the process taking multiple days, a zillion forms, and requiring a bribe to get the paperwork you need? 


  1. there are still people speaking Czech and German here..More Czech than German thou..a lot of them don't speak it fluently but know many Czech words..I know 2 ..pevo(beer) and pupek..belly button.

  2. Still have Finnish and French speakers around here, too, and various other groups hold language classes, but it's the nostalgic type of ethnicity and no longer the type of tribalism that leads to violence. You know, love the food, say good stuff about the land of the ancestors, maybe even spend Big Bucks on trips back to wherever to visit distant relatives, but the bottom line is everyone who's been here for more than a couple generations is American first. The more generations distant from the Old Country people are, the less interest they generally have in it.

  3. As a lifelong Californian I was surprised when I first visited the East Coast to to see people who looked so very ethnic and who identified so strongly with their family country of origin. In CA we are so homogenized and no one ever seemed to identify with any ethnic origin - with the exception of the African American kids. Even the Asian and Hispanic kids didn't sort themselves out.

    I do agree that the mixed bag of best and worst things this country did contributed to our strength as a fairly unified melting pot.

    I am happy that we are finding our way to acceptance of the wonderful variety and history of the many ethnicities which make up our country now.

  4. When people moved to the new world they by and large could leave their history behind. Europe has two or three or five thousand years of history. One of the reasons Europe and America will never understand each other.

  5. Further to previous comment, America has only had one war, 150 years ago, and you still have not recovered from it.


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