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.
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.
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.