I recently had the opportunity to visit Dublin, Ireland affording me my first true visit to the Emerald Isle. I had been through Ireland twice before but you can’t really call those proper visits. They were both relatively quick stops of only a couple of hours as our plane was restocked and refueled either heading to or returning from Iraq. This was a much more proper trip. Only a day but it did let me get out and see the city and interact with the people, rather than being trapped in an airport smoking cigarettes, drinking weak coffee, and eating airport food while staring through an airport gate.
This trip got me thinking about some of the similarities and differences we native English speaking cousins have. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, ‘It’s not just Britain and America divided by a common language.’
I’m an American, and yes I know, America does not have an “official language” and I do like that. However, the majority of the people in the country do speak English and it is the primary language spoken in most households. Although I’m sure our British cousins might have something to say about whether it’s actually English anymore as opposed to american. This gives me some insight into American culture and linguistics.
As the title states these are thoughts on a very small part of the English speaking world. According to The History Of English.com, the only countries with English as its mother tongue are Britain (UK), Ireland, the USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and a hand full of Caribbean Island nations. The University of Sheffield only lists 18 countries as being recognized as being native English speaking. Most of those the aforementioned ones at The History of English. Wikipedia list 54 sovereign states and 27 non sovereign states with English as an official language. Estimates of people who speak English at all, both native and as a secondary language, range anywhere up to 1 billion people making English the most widely spoken language in the world.
So – yes – a very small portion.
I have been able to meet and experience the cultures of people from only a few of what are considered the countries with English as a mother tongue. My own impression of America is one. As I stated I’ve gotten a brief look at Ireland in person and have had the privilege of meeting several Irish people. I’ve gotten to spend time in Scotland. (I, and I’m sure the Scots would agree, consider it more of its own nation. Plus visiting the spots where Trainspotting was filmed was really neat.) I have been living in England for a number of years as well. I have only briefly visited Canada and have had the pleasure of knowing far to few of them. Equally, my experience with the Welsh and our cousins from down under, both the Australians and New Zealanders, is extremely limited so I won’t embarrass myself with trying to discuss them.
While we all share a similar language – there is such variation in pronunciation and slang they truly are just different enough to the casual listener though I know linguists will debate me on this – there are traits and quirks of each that are as remarkable as they are unique.
Our trip to Ireland was not planned to be centered around books but it seemed as if it just couldn’t be deviated from that path. We had seen the animated movie The Secret of Kells many years ago and it seemed that we could not visit Dublin without getting a look at the original Book of Kells. The Irish are stereotypically known for their gift of gab but are also renowned for their literature. Books, stories, songs, poetry. Our trip seemed to just follow this exceptional gift with which the Irish seem to be blessed. The English may consider themselves to have invited the language, and indeed they do have Shakespeare, but the Irish can rightly boast James Joyce, W.B Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Jonathan Swift, C.S Lewis, Bram Stoker, Sinead O’Connor, and Dolores O’Riordan. In addition to the amazing Long Room at Trinity University and the amazing Charles Beatty Library, we were drawn to a number of small bookshops and into the pubs to hear local artists. Even at the end of the trip, waiting to head to the airport, the bar at our hotel was called – and appeared to be – the Library Bar.
Growing up I was enamored with Star Trek, still am actually. One of the most iconic characters on the show is, of course, Commander Montgomery Scott or Scotty. Of course James Doohan who played Scotty was actually Canadian and his accents authenticity is highly debatable. The fact that he was supposed to be from Scotland was done with firm purpose of mind set in place. Gene Roddenberry knew that the Scots were renowned for their technical ability. The book How the Scots Invented the Modern World goes into detail about the inventions and ingenuity of the Scots. Visiting Scotland and meeting the people I can understand why. These tough, innovative folks carved out an amazing culture in the hard windswept hills of Scotland. Just looking in amazement at the imposing sight of Edinburgh Castle gives you just a small glimpse into the creativity of these people.
The English, of course, are the inventors and custodians of the mother tongue and they are well aware of their collective responsibility in this matter. They watch over the rest of us with a barely suppressed shutter at how we butcher their beautiful prose. The entire time they correct us on our spelling or pronunciation though they do it with a bit of that well polished tongue firmly in their check. Their self deprecating humor reaches back and keeps them well in place as they see what the various actions of those who have picked up the mantle of the language have accomplished. Their is a bit of pride even is their erstwhile children pass them by or correct them for their past faults real or imagined. They do all of this with a certain grace and decorum. Something quintessentially British.
Then there are finally the Americans. The brash loud Americans. Without trying to sound boastful, as I’m proudly an American, some of the most interesting an obvious aspects of the Americans is our positivity, our openness, and our sense of adventure. Those are the three things I get told most often when our talk to our linguistic cousins. As much as they hate us, or our resentful of us and find us loud and overbearing, they still love us. On an individual basis they find us warm loving people. They marvel in our optimism and our pioneering spirit.
There are many differences among the English speaking people I have had the good fortune to meet. Many good things as well as bad. Also many things we share. As much as one trait may appear dominant among one of us, aspects of it can be seen in all of us. If the British didn’t have a pioneering spirit my country would not exist. The innovation of the Scots has helped to build my country. The poetry and song of the Irish has lifted the spirit of my people. Just as all these aspect of the other can be found in my people, the positive and the good that needs to be nurtured can be found in all of us.