My current work takes me on the road quite a bit. Along the way, I meet and chat with a lot of people, and often I’ll hear a different kind of English spoken…sometimes several versions in a single place.
For example, a regular breakfast stop north of town brings me and earful of Hindi-English from the owners, Latino-English [Spanglish?] from the customers, and southern redneck English from the old timers’ liars’ club in back. Often at lunch, I’ll hear Chinese-English from the cashier, African-English from the table next to me.
Most of the sources of these accents are bilingual. Their native language is spoken at home or amongst their own people, while their version of English is spoken in public, for business or social reasons. English is not only the language that unites our country, but thanks to the Internet it’s also the lingua franca of the world. What if the World Wide Web had been invented by a German?
There are those who think English should be the only language spoken here, that somehow it’s the “language of America.” Wrong. From the very beginning of European settlement, many languages were spoken here: French, Dutch, German, Moravian, Swedish, Norse, Russian…and yes, English. Those languages are still with us in regional accents, place names, and more.
The term African American Vernacular puts a vast collection of tongues, dialects, and cultural nuance from descendants of slaves from many regions of Africa and the Caribbean into a single catch-all to describe a language that is related to English, but veering farther away from it as each year passes. Its distinctiveness recognized by linguists but misunderstood by most, its speakers must be as bilingual as other cultures in order to speak American Standard English.
If there are that many differences just in language, just in this small part of one small section of our country, the challenges to unite the continent into a single nation become evident. There must be something that overrides language, culture, even religion to make us whole. The ancient Greeks had a glimmer of that, called the “polis.” For us, call it “God and Country” even though many gods are worshipped and many countries are referenced.
Human beings what they are, there are many who will try to pull us apart, to blame the victims for the supposed hypocrisy of their leaders. Others, like the Greeks, aim for that ideal, for Matthew’s shining city on a hill. For those philosopher-kings, their ideal was never matched by reality. Nor will ours. All we can do is try.