When in Rome: A Letter to the Editor on Language, Immigration, and Culture

Note: Nearly four years ago, one of the regular local Letter to the Editor writers complained of a phenomenon at our largest grocery store. He spoke about how a group of “Asians” were speaking loudly to one another in “Chinese” in a way that he found disruptive. The editorializer then used the opportunity to say that while he was as welcoming as the next guy to people “from away,” this is Prince Edward Island, Canada. Newcomers should learn to speak English, as we do. The newsprint philosopher ended his editorial with the hung elliptical phrase, “When in Rome….”

At the time I read the letter I was working for our Provincial Government, primarily writing immigration policy. So I didn’t feel like I could respond to this letter, as tempting as it was. My platform was government policy, legislation, and political announcements, not our local paper, The Guardian, which “covers the Island like the dew.” Our little province has the lowest economic development and wages per person of any in Canada, but because of a strong, progressive, highly controlled immigration and development policy, we are the fastest growing Canadian region in terms of wealth and population.

As I am looking at the potential of returning to some work on immigration, I thought I would respond in a more anonymous way now. Contextually, Brexit continues, disastrously, and the refugee crisis continues. It is looking like the American 2020 election will be fought around immigration and cultural issues like the 2018 midterms were fought on gender and safety issues. Globally speaking, it is a period of radical human movement, both forced and voluntary, economic and social. In concert with religious development and issues of human-tech interface, human migration is the most powerful question of the 21st century. This, then, is my “When in Rome…” response, slightly delayed, still problematic, and yet still relevant.

Dear Editor,

I was immediately inspired by the concluding words of Alfred Luftmensch’s heartfelt Letter to the Editor of last week. After complaining about loud, interruptive chatter by “Asians” speaking “Chinese” at the Superstore, he wrote to remind newcomers to PEI that when you have joined our beautiful Island culture, you should learn the language. “When in Rome…,” he concluded, invited us to add in, “Do as the Romans Do.”

I think we can first set aside one of Mr Luftmensch’s complaints. Loudtalking is, I agree, a terrible thing—on my list of social diseases with dogwalkers who forget their scat bag and frequent writers of letters to the editor. Grocery store loudtalking is, however, a universal phenomenon. No one culture can claim that social ill as its own—not even the collection of 48 countries and thousands of local cultures that Mr Luftmensch calls “Asian.”

At the heart of Mr Luftmensch’s concern is the language itself, and the feeling of cultural connection it brings. As I was thinking of “When in Rome,” I began to wonder: “what did the Romans do regarding language?” That’s the point, after all. It is here we see that Mr Luftmensch may not have fully thought through his argument.

If we ask on the street what language they speak in Rome, we might get three kinds of answers. Culturally aware people will no doubt say “Italian,” while some more bookish people, thinking of their once-upon-a-time undergraduate courses, might say “Latin.” Another group of more sassy respondents will say, “people in Rome speak all kinds of languages.” Setting aside that last point for a moment, we are already in a bit of a quandary.

Doing as the Romans do, language-wise, depends on when we are in Rome.

Old Latin combined with politics, poetry, and an adapted Greek alphabet to become Classical Latin, which Islanders used to learn in school when our culture believed that education rather than economic development was at the heart of a civilization. Latin developed over time, taking on local and ecclesiastical flavours. After Rome’s fall, in the flux of Europe’s development, Latin became French, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, and Catalan. Latin influenced English in at least four big waves, so that—as Mr Luftmensch no doubt knows—Canada’s “sea to shining sea” motto is in Latin, as are the mottos of many states and most colleges. Most locally, Latin developed into Italian, though most visitors find it pretty easy to order great food and drink in English. And Latin remains the official language of the Vatican, though when the Bishops gather, the ecclesiastical gossip is usually in English, Spanish, or a shared foreign tongue.

So it’s a hard thing, speaking as the Romans speak. Even at the height of Roman power under the Emperors after Caesar, Greek was spoken throughout the Empire and even in the marketplaces in the capital. As one of the supercities of the Mediterranean, people spoke all kinds of languages, using Latin only when necessary. When in Rome, it seems, one speaks whatever language works. Then, as now, knowing multiple languages is a valuable skill.

But even if we could say, “When in Rome, speak Romish,” what would we say of Prince Edward Island?

Mr Luftmensch assumes that English is our native tongue. It’s true that PEI was colonized by Scots, the Irish, and the English, and we used English as a common language even though the Scottish were the largest group of immigrants. But would Acadians agree that newcomers need to speak English? 20% of historical European immigration was French. 4% of Islanders continue to speak French as their first language, and 12% of us can speak either official language, French or English.

But that question of which language is the native tongue of PEI leads to a deeper question. If this is “Rome,” what did the first immigrants do? Did they adapt to the local area, learning to speak Mi’kmaq as thousands of Scots and Russians and Chinese have learned to speak English since?

Not even a little bit. Except for a few missionaries, no one learned Mi’kmaq in any meaningful way. Instead, as immigrants, we Europeans brought our culture with us and reshaped the world we inhabited.

So with due respect, Mr Luftmensch, the conclusion of your letter shows that you have simply not thought the question through.

Meanwhile, it is true that grocery stores attract loudtalkers. For my part, I wish we had learned Mi’kmaq when we arrived. I wish a lot of things were different. But in the world as it is, I like hearing snatches of Japanese from excited summer tourists. I like seeing old people gossip in Mandarin or Dutch or young people gather to joke in Arabic or Korean. “Rome” has always been an adapting, growing, international place where many peoples gathered, and it means that parts of the culture we love will change. That is inevitable. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it fell in one. And from that fall 1610 years ago, it became something new.

Practically speaking, most newcomers will learn English. They will adapt to our culture and make changes to their lives. But we are not the same culture we were 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. Today, our newcomers are part of what will continue to remake the Island. For when in Rome, we do as the Romans do: We adapt.

Note: Photos taken from the site of the DiverseCity Multicultural Festival which is run by the PEI Association of Newcomers, the PEI government, or The Guardian.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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23 Responses to When in Rome: A Letter to the Editor on Language, Immigration, and Culture

  1. djhockley123 says:

    Well done! Haha

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

  2. Marian Carey says:

    I always love reading your posts Brenton, but this one, coming as it does at a time of upheaval for us Brits (Brexit & Co), was relevant in a particular way.

    I’m emailing from Leicester, a ‘City of Sanctuary’, as we have become home to many refugees from all kinds of different cultures, to add to the existing diversity of our citizens.

    So, I wanted to say ‘thanks!’ for your measured, intelligent, witty, perspicacious and timely response.

    Marian

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

    ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Marion, thank you for this kind note. There’s a lot of upheaval throughout the world on this issue, and I will write in a few weeks about how our contexts in Canada is not the same has the UK or the US. And the way that we deal with refugees, may be different than the way we deal with other kinds of immigration. The carrying ability of any local community will be difference and very about how they can accommodate for different kinds of immigration requests. But I do think these principles remain the same, and I’m glad that Leicester can be one of those cities.
      I did chuckle when I saw you write the word Timely, since I took four years to write this piece!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey Brenton, I have a new computer that responds promptly to my demands and does not dawdle. So I’m catching up on your oh, so lovely, observations etc.

    So often the ‘other’ we let in is Papa God’s change agent.

    Just reading your words is a joy and a delight. They trip along so fantastically.

    Blessings, lots of them, to you and yours,

    Laurell

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Laurell, your new computer has some strange language patterns!
      Thanks for the nice note. Yes, I don’t think that changes in our culture is without providence. I like new neighbours, though I would like to be more neighbourly!

      Like

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Your saying, “Except for a few missionaries, no one learned Mi’kmaq in any meaningful way” got me interested, and Wikipedia swiftly brought me to Membertou, baptized Henri (in 1610), and some mutually interested interaction with Marc Lescarbot leading to the oldest existing transcriptions of songs from the Americas – ! And, via a footnote, details of their history and handy transcription:

    http://www.flutopedia.com/song_Membertou.htm

    Liked by 2 people

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Then, surely, I thought, and, yes – performed on YouTube:

      Like

      • That’s awesome, David! The Mi’kmaq people are not the largest of North America, though they cover the Maritimes Canada into Maine and have kinship beyond that. So it pleases me to see the story that you told here. That’s very cool!
        It was his choice, of course, but I am always sad that Chief Membertou took on a European name, as if changing faith meant changing culture. Yet, that was intimated to them and often enough stated boldly. It has caused great damage.

        Like

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I’ve had friends in the Church of England who were baptized as babies, and have added a name of their own choosing when the were confirmed by the bishop at a later age, and was wondering if this was something like that – an enrichment acknowledging new life and courteously honoring the King of France at the same time by the name chosen.

          I would love to know a lot more about the history of Christian – and civil – naming, dark sides not excluded. For example, when I think of people like St. Bacchus (whose feast is 7 October) or St. Nymphadora (variously 10 and 23 September), I wonder when and where there were something like ‘cut-offs’ for baptismal names or an ‘uptick’ of the sort of renaming (with an existing Saint’s name) you note. And, we’ve got a fascinating book from 1972 with names you were allowed to name children in the Netherlands! I’m not sure if that was a Napoleonic heritage, or just when it changed… And I remember reading something of a later date about the Argentine government deciding Patagonians of Welsh descent were no longer allowed to give their children Welsh names, but only Spanish ones.

          Like

  5. Yewtree says:

    This is excellent, Brenton. Thank you.

    Side note: someone in the US complained about his state’s motto being in Latin, as he thought it was Latino. Massive eye-roll. It appears that some people (Luftmensch included) are unaware of the breadth and depth of the culture they’re from, which is perhaps why they are uninterested in other cultures.

    I once met a marvellous Christian priest who brought together Pagans and Christians for an annual interfaith dialogue camp in Wiltshire, UK. He said that interfaith dialogue is only suitable for people with a strong grounding in their own faith. Perhaps the same applies to culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I think the English Wikipedia article, “Latin America” (“last edited on 29 July 2019, at 07:02 (UTC)”), has a good first paragraph, with indications of the breadth of the ‘Latin’ in that familiar designation (I have not checked the articles in all 130 other languages to see if they use the same adjective…). It also indicates that “The term was used also by Napoleon III’s French government in the 1860s as Amérique latine to consider French-speaking territories in the Americas” – including those of the French Canadians! The good old 1929 second edition of the COD is succinctly clear about that scope, too: “speaking one of the languages descended from Latin, Romance (the L. peoples, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, &c.).”

      Nosing around the Internet Archive a bit, I encountered a title I don’t remember (is it merely old age?): The Spirit of Romance; An Attempt to Define Somewhat the Charm of the Pre-Renaissance Literature of Latin Europe (London: Dent, 1910) – by “Ezra Pound, M.A.”!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Yvonne. I will join you in the eye roll. I wonder what that person would do if they knew that more than half–26 of US states have indigenous names. “Canada” is, in legend, an aboriginal name, though not most our provinces.
      I wonder, though, what American feeling is about that. Perhaps someone might be anti-immigrant and anti-Latino, but feel warmly toward native Americans.
      I’d also caution something about living in Canada. I don’t know how long you have been here, so I doubt you’ll have the habit. But we sometimes will tell a “Dumb American” story and then quietly believe that represents the whole country! Immigration is going to be a big issue in this election, but on many fronts.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yewtree says:

        I’ve now been in Canada for just over a year. But the British also have the habit of telling “dumb American” stories.

        It’s always tempting to believe that somewhere else is more racist, or more stupid, than where one lives, and then to believe that lets us off the hook of doing something about our own vices.

        Some years ago, someone made a video of people in the USA saying dumb things about the UK. This was much circulated until someone made a video of people in the UK saying equally dumb things about the USA. Good thing they didn’t ask them about Canada. Brits are very amnesiac about Canada.

        Re: province names. Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nunavut, Yukon, and Québec are all derived from Indigenous languages. PEI, BC, NL, NWT, Nova Scotia, Alberta, and NB are not.

        Like

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          One of my Canadian friends gave me a big bright-yellow button with a cartoon of a beaver chomping a branch and the words ‘Canadian, eh?’ – but I can’t remember whether I wore it during performances or only rehearsals when I was playing Major Magnus Muldoon in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Yewtree says:

            I bought my husband a T-shirt with “The Eh Team” emblazoned upon it.

            He met Tom Stoppard once. Very nice guy apparently.

            And I played Miss Blumenblatt in Tom Stoppard’s “On The Razzle” when I was 16.

            Liked by 1 person

        • There was an old schtick in Canada, “Talking to Americans.” Great for laughs, but not terribly good sociology. That the comedian did some of the interviews on American ivy league campuses helped!

          I didn’t know about Quebec & Ontario. I still like PEI’s name, Abegweit, and would love to change it–but we can’t afford to, honestly. We rely on tourism too much.
          Truthfully, wherever in the world it is, I find ignorance very ignorant.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yewtree says:

            Abegweit. I’ll have to remember that.

            On a pleasing and tangential note, we watched the Mr Rogers documentary on Netflix yesterday evening. Highly recommended. It’s called “Won’t you be my Neighbor?”

            Liked by 1 person

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    By the way, have I ever found occasion to mention this interesting recording?;

    It makes me think of Lewis’s recorded lecture on “The Norse Spirit in English Literature” of some dozen years later, which Professor Poe rediscovered a couple years ago – both of which leave me wishing to know a lot more about such recorded lectures for circulation, and wondering who has written about them, when and where.

    Professor Conway produced books young future Inklings might have encountered at school or university, and I wonder what if any indirect or even direct contact any of them may have had with him, or if any of them read any of his sister, Katharine St John Conway Bruce Glasier’s fiction?

    Like

  7. Kathy says:

    Your final comment, “For when in Rome, we do as the Romans do: We adapt.”, is brilliant! I too often hear of people you use that saying to make people feel bad about who they are currently and their otherness.

    Like

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