Thursday, August 28, 2003
My English origins
My Language Perhaps on the basis that another man's grass is always greener , England's green and pleasant land has, from the beginnings of history, quite literally, at various times, been invaded by hoards of Danes, Swedes , Norwegians, Germans, French and Italians. But tourism was not on the agenda in those early days but plunder, rape, pillage, conquer were popular pastimes then with our visitors from overseas.
More significantly, from the point of view of the development of our language and with it our sense of English nationality, these various conquering races settled and so many words from their various vocabularies were absorbed and combined over the centuries to make the English we speak today. English is thus a very flexible and comprehensive language. But whilst it is one of the most popular second languages to learn worldwide, it can prove tricky for many to fully master. This is simply because , historically, it is such a melange of other languages, and so possesses an irritating range of irregular spellings and a tricky grammar rules. So where did this language that helps me define myself come from originally?
We have to look to an obscure German tribe from the Angul district of Slesvig, now in modern Northern Germany, for the origins of the name of our country and language. Angul itself was named after the physical shape of that part of Germany. ( In fact I now remember that I was wrongly told at school , as a young child, that 'England' was thus called originally because invaders identified it as a narrow, thin shaped landmass and that the modern name derived from 'engel' land , ( narrow land) when the reality is that it was the shape of the Angles homeland from which our word is derived.
The earliest literary reference to the Angles can be found in the writing of the ancient historian, the Venerable Bede. He uses Angelcynn as a collective noun for that race of Germanic people and he speaks too of gens anglorum ( Race of Angles). Further Etymological research into the origins of the word English both to describe the people of England and their language goes back first to the Old Fresian words angelsk, anglesk and engelsk and englesk. It can also be traced back in variants from Old Saxon engelsch, Middle High German engelisch, Old Norse Engilskr and Swedish and Danish engelsk.
From the point of view of English, the name of our language, it was originally used relating to all the Angle and Saxon dialects spoken in Britain , but in essence, the way we use the word English today technically refers to all the dialects spoken in Britain that are descended from the language used by the early Germanic conquerors of Britain.
As a result of the racial mixing from centuries of invasion, it may be harder for the English as a race to experience the same confident and clear sense of nationality that seems to be enjoyed by the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish. Certainly, for example, the Romans found the native Scots and Welsh, and their mountain terrains more troublesome to overcome than English and hence native Celtic languages were not infected through invasion, and so their sense of national identity and culture, rooted in that ancient language, continued to blossom while the English, at various times, were forced to assimilate and redefine the sense of their national identity.
My English Nationality
I am still fiercely proud to be an Englishman. But because of historical events in more recent times defining my own national identity as simply English is in some ways problematic. Britain, once an Island of separate states was to become the United Kingdom following a constitutional crisis when the regular lineage of British monarchs had ended and the Scottish King James 6th was called upon to become James 1st , king of England as well. Internationally, even today, few people distinguish between the terms British and English but technically all people living in the United Kingdom, entitled to a passport, have the legal nationality British, and in terms of our constitutional monarchy we are all British subjects, whether we are royalist or not. So whether we are native of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or England we are all, legally at least, British . At best we all have dual nationality whether we like it or not and I now consider myself, in terms of my nationality, as an English Briton.
Very probably because both our government and monarchy have , for centuries, been based in London , England, as are the head quarters of many of our other celebrated national institutions, romantic notions of British and English national identity, especially through international eyes, are predominantly based on preconceptions of what is a dominant English culture and heritage. Personally, I think that the stereotypically image of the English or the British has more to do with a romantic view of us from the golden age of past glories which are less and less visible in the everyday reality of the present moment. For many, who remember television series the Avengers, actor Patrick McGee in role of John Steed, was the quintessential bowler hatted, Saville Row suited English gentleman ostensibly from the upper stratum of society.
So , as an everyday Englishman, what have I in common with this cinematically generated English icon ? About as much as I do with James Bond. I certainly do not wear a bowler hat or any hat ever, I don't have my suits made by an exclusive Saville Row tailor or carry an umbrella. I drive a Scandanavian car not a classic British Bentley . I speak grammatically correctly but my speech could not be regarded as 'posh'. I despise the artifical,plummy-sounding affected received English through which certain classes attempt to make themselves distinct and hopefully superior from ordinary members of society and I certainly could not be mistaken for anything other than middle class.
My English Character.
Many Americans, for example have a very romantic view of the monarchy and the English 'aristocracy' it has spawned and effectively still supports. Some, if they are wealthy enough, even have aspirations to emulate the life styles of British Aristocrats and that, for example, seems to make a mockery of those who struggled for Freedom during the American War of Independence , as early Americans were, effectively the oppressed victims, by proxy, of the English aristocracy and their awful attitudes !
One of the personal characteristics that helps me to define myself is a strong sense of fair play. (As a nation we had the vanity to credit ourselves with this being a typical, exclusively British characteristic although I believe that, barring language and minor cultural differences, there is far more we all have in common than divides us in terms of nationality.)
Traditionally we were taught to defend the cause of the under-dog and conduct ourselves in a sporting way, abiding by the rules of the game and accepting either defeat or victory equally graciously. Winning was secondary to taking part and thus , in sport at least; losing was what we were always very good at . And yet, conversely I am , as well, fiercely independent, individual, a tad eccentric perhaps but with my own personal code of manners and ethics and in that sense, being typically British or indeed English is finding a way to balance your responsibility to others against your own cherished freedom to be yourself and think independently and originally without being a slave to the constraints of national conventions. And that mut be true of any national anywhere and in a real sense, nationality I just a label for form filling and certainly cannot and shouldn't be used to geenralise about groups of individuals just on the grounds of the culture and country they were born into.
My English Social status.
I am an apolitical middle class professional and have no affiliations to any political party. Yet I am enough of a realist to know that whilst we are all equals, some of us are more equal than others and that seems, somehow, to be the natural order of things. I think it was the leader of our present government who claimed that Britain was now a classless society. I hadn't realised that Labour Prime Minister, and latent socialist Tony Blair was a comedian as well as a politician. His government have taken token tilts at social privilege making minor changes, for example to the constitution of the House of Lords and asking, for example, one member of the Royal family to pay the going rate for a grace and favour pad in Central London. England is still class ridden, but, the majority of us don't operate in the same social environment as the privileged and thus the class system discreetly rolls along as it always has done.
I am a kind of Englishman who detests the inequality of inherited wealth and title and the social privileges that go with it and I would like the present system changed, without a bloody revolution (though that has its temptations at times ) so that genuine effort and merit only were rewarded.
It is only comparatively recently that certain members of our aristocracy have encountered everyday realities. Old country seats, in the days when aristocratic families had great power and influence comprised vast expanses of English countryside with a stately home and related estate buildings and these were passed down through 'upper' class generations by inheritance. We might all fantasize about living in such circumstances as the idle rich with nothing to do but oversee armies of lackeys who did everything for you while you swanned around in your tweeds, but these days such premises are an increasing liability to maintain , particularly as the supply of ingenuously loyal common people prepared to work in low paid slavery has run out. Thus, simply in order to remain in the luxury to which they had become accustomed to, and indeed felt they deserved by right and originally won so easily, they have had to adapt and actually, in some cases, even roll up their sleeves and do some of the work themselves. This represents not a welcome and long awaited change in attitude or social ethics but is simply driven by economics and self-interest.
The professionally eccentric Lord Weymouth has , for example , had to turn his Longleat Stately pile into a very successful theme park and Safari Park and also has to tolerate the endless stream of plebes who happily pay their entrance fee to gape at the expensive trappings of a life style which they could only otherwise dream about. ( For an additional fee , curiously, they may also chose to view a bizarre collection of the nobleman's own eccentric erotic paintings ) To leave us in no doubt that we are still an underclass n comparison to the moneyed and titled elite, even Her Majesty The Queen has opened her London Palace at least to those prepared to pay what seems an extraordinary entrance fee. It does seem particularly unfair that the British Tax payers who contribute so significantly to her life style and that of her family have to pay to see what are effectively their own national treasures.
I recently ventured into the neatly manicured rural splendour of the county of Cheshire passing breathtakingly picturesque opulent residences that quietly screamed that all the residents were loaded. At a small village called Hendbury, a sizable section of a very large and beautifully landscaped country estate , (no doubt with, somewhere hidden in its verdant vastness, one of those aritstocratic stately piles) had been turned over to accommodate the horsy sport of Eventing , the Hendbury Horse Trials. Here wealth on legs, two legs or four, decanted from fleets of four wheel drives and lavish horse boxes either to compete against the clock on horseback over a frightening looking horsy obstacle course, or to spectate.
I was there simply out of interest from the point of view of the photographic opportunities it promised. During the course of the afternoon, I had a brief conversation with a charming man who was sitting in a disability scooter waiting for a drink near one of the catering vans. "Lovely grounds here", I offered, "but it doesn't seem right that some people should inherit all this wealth and land at the expense of ordinary people. " "Well", he said, "I have spent most of my life working for the gentry in Estate Management. They couldn't manage without people without me." Then he added , "You have to remember that it is only because the gentry have all that land and wealth that people like me had a job." This struck me as incredibly misguided logic. Was it then perfectly justifiable for there to be a wealthy elite (that traditionally exploited its work force), simply because they provided employment for people prepared to do the work that they were not able , or it seems genetically inclined to do themselves I wondered ?
johncoxon 2:31 PM - [Link] - Comments ()