My friend Ella Burton posted on Facebook recently about this topic. Ella, if you’re reading this, do chip in.
I’d like to say first of all that I am very glad to be British or even English. There is much to be thankful for there. We have fantastic literature and drama and incredible tolerance for the most part. Others laugh at us sometimes for our pragmatism aka “stiff upper lip” but it has its uses.
However, what exactly does it mean to be British?
Visitors from the mainland may have found it even trickier to get across the channel than the mountain and rivers I mentioned in my previous post. Maybe it was the challenge that made people all the more determined. So each time the island was invaded. There was no gentle Völkerwanderung and gradual exchange at the borders.
Have any of you traced your ancestry back or had your DNA analysed? Are you more Saxon or Norman? Do you have some Viking in you? Or are you a Great Dane? Specifically, perhaps related to those from Jutland, the Juts. They came too. The Romans came and civilised us. Well, at least they brought us sanitation and central heating. They went home again and we forgot about it. They disappeared. Or do you have true Angle blood? They had quite a bit of influence. It’s where we get the word English from.
The Romans’ language is interesting. Latin gradually died away apart from in the Catholic Church. There is some irony there. The Romans gave up their gods and took on the Christian one. They left their language with the new religion.
There are some more interesting linguistic factors here:
· William the Conqueror encouraged his men to speak English rather than the Norman French they normally spoke. He didn’t approve of the latter. Goodness knows what sort of English they learnt, though. Good old Anglo-Saxon?
· English is difficult to spell / read. Just look at this sequence of words if you don’t believe me: cow, cough, bough, bow. Spanish and German are much easier. What you see is what you get, more or less, with those languages. In English, spelling and pronunciation is determined by which base language the words came from. There were many base languages because there were many invasions.
· English is not inflected. We use word order rather than inflections to convey meaning. German and Latin use inflections. This is in part because of the melting-pot effect. It is easy to pick up and teach vocabulary. You point at the horse, say the word “horse” and everybody gets it. If there are several words for horse you probably pick the easiest to say or the nicest sounding. Then you agree on a common word order: Subject, verb, object. I ride the horse.
· English has no authority governing it. The Oxford English Dictionary attempts to record it accurately. Fowler advises us on usage. Grammar is important as it makes the language clear and gives it its backbone. This is true in any language. On the whole, though, English is allowed to develop freely. This is great because language aids thinking.
· Spanish and Welsh share the same intonation, several words, the stress on the penultimate syllable of a word, and almost all the same extra letters in the alphabets. The Spanish and Welsh “ll” sound very different but you make the same shape in your mouth. The tongue is further back for Welsh. Celts are believed to be fair-skinned people who migrated from Spain.
Are we complete mongrels then? Or do we prefer to think we have been blended smoothly together in a great big melting pot? Either image works for me. Mongrels are often more robust than highly-bred pedigree dogs. Soups made from everything you can find in the pantry are delicious. Being British means already being a mixture of many other European nationalities.
The melting pot has got bigger, fortunately not because of any further hostile invasions, but because of a legal right of citizens from other EU states and Commonwealth countries to come and live and work here and because we grant asylum to many people forced to leave their own countries in difficult circumstances.
Interesting that Liverpool, London and Manchester are used to these people. The people there seem to like the melting pot effect. We should remember as well that those from other EU states and those given asylum, although they pay taxes and live in the UK, have no right to vote in general elections and referendums. The old melting-pot populations of Manchester and Liverpool are predominantly white working class.
Makes you proud to live in Manchester, doesn’t it?
And maybe we’re so good at literature and drama and tolerance because we’ve blended in the pot. Long may it continue to cook.