“Keep America American.”
That was part of a recent Readers Tell Us message concerning illegal aliens. Apart from my belief that the name “America” should be changed to “Columbia,” I also question the definition of “American.” I know the RTU caller was discussing illegal immigration, but his phrase made me think about the hue and cry that all Americans should speak English. English as our official language makes sense, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have a multilingual country. Many countries are bilingual or multilingual and somehow manage. Perhaps knowledge of our history would influence people who feel we’re being overrun by Mexicans and other people who dare to speak a language other than English. What nerve!
Before Europeans overran the continent of North America, in most cases without first asking the natives if the land was available, the Pennsylvania Quakers being a rare exception, the continent was populated by several dozen tribes, each with its own culture, way of dress, customs and language. What is now Ohio was home to the Eries, Iroquois, Delaware, Miami and Shawnee. Each tribe spoke a different language. Each considered itself autonomous.
When Europeans came, they brought the customs, architecture and language of their homes. The Dutch settled New York, and Dutch names still survive in the Hudson River valley. The French claimed southern Canada, the Great Lakes basin, and all the land drained by the Mississippi River and its tributaries, including the Ohio country and the land between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains, bordered to the north, in Canada, by Hudson’s Bay Company land. The Hudson’s Bay Company, which still makes the striped white wool blankets it has made for several hundred years, was an English firm.
The English claimed the land from the Atlantic Ocean to the Appalachians between Florida and Canada. Also coming from the British Isles were Irish and Scottish settlers speaking their versions of Gaelic, a Celtic language surviving from the age before Anglo-Saxon conquest of the British Isles. Mixed in with the English were many German settlers, especially in eastern Pennsylvania and down the valley between the two chains of the Appalachians. The Germans brought their culture and language to this country.
The French ceded the Louisiana Territory to Spain in 1762 and lost their other claims in North America at the end of the French and Indian War, in 1763, to the English. Spain returned the Louisiana Territory to French control in 1800.
Look at a map when Lewis and Clark explored the Missouri River and west to the Pacific, after the United States bought the Louisiana Territory from France, and it is stunning to see how much of what is now the United States once belonged (without the Indians’ consent, of course, as usual) to Spain and later Mexico. Spain’s territory was vast, comprising what is now Mexico, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. The United States declared war on Mexico in 1845 over flimsy claims of invaders on “American” soil, although ownership of the land on which they fought, between the Rio Grande and Nueces River, was in dispute. Mexico said its northern border with Texas was the Nueces, and the U.S. said it was the Rio Grande to the south. Between was a no-man’s land where the clash occurred. The Mexican War was a bald-faced land grab dignified by the term Manifest Destiny, giving the war a holy purpose. U.S. citizens truly believed they were charged by God to control the continent.
Don’t forget all those Africans who were seized, thrown in chains and hauled to the Americas in horrid, inhumane conditions. Their liberty, language and customs were wrenched from them. Speakers of several African languages were forced to learn English as they were forced to bend to the hoe and spade.
In short, before 1763, English speakers in North America occupied a small stretch of land along the Atlantic coast from Maine to southern Georgia and the northern reaches of Canada. The rest of North America was occupied by Indians speaking several dozen languages, French people living with the Indians and speaking their languages and French, Spanish and Mexicans speaking Spanish and Indian languages, and former Africans clinging with despair in secret moments to shreds of their past.
I’ll repeat that I’m saying nothing about illegal immigration — I’m commenting on the belief that all people who live in the United States should speak English. I consider it unrealistic to expect people to speak one language in a country of this size, one that is composed of states the size of countries in Europe that are home to people speaking several languages. I like to hear other languages and experience other cultures, and I think, although it may be more complicated and challenging to deal with people speaking “foreign” languages, the challenge enriches our culture. We could benefit by learning to be bilingual or multilingual, as in many other countries, and the increase of Spanish speakers is an old wrong partly righted.
- American Indians
- C. History
- Civil War
- D. Books
- E. Clothing
- Historical Clothing
- Historical Festivals
- Musical Instruments
- Ohio History
- Old West
- Revolutionary War
- World War II