After three dozen blogposts, we have some measure of the moral ambivalence with which the global spread of the English language has been greeted. If it weren’t for the piratical energies of the early naval “explorers” and the subsequent depredations of a ravenously expanding Empire, the summary of an earlier posting (October 2020) might have been able to stand, unchallenged:
“The nugget of wonder (in the Cradle of English) is what innovative collaboration and energy was able to accomplish over a few short centuries in one tiny corner of London. It enabled civilizational advances in law, science, literature, and the highest articulations of human aspiration and liberty. And it was facilitated by the accession of a language sparked by the sheer variety of genius that came together on this ground.”
But of course the pens and printing presses of Fleet Street were only half the story, as what was kindled around the home fires of England played out to much more deadly effect on so many foreign fields that were to be sentimentalised as “forever England” for having been anointed with the blood of English soldiers. And the continuing conflation of the behaviours of Englishmen abroad with the language that they spoke has ensured a steady drumbeat of opprobrium for all real and imagined champions of the “white man’s burden.”
Confusing what one person or group of people aspires to do with what another group of people is actually doing is what drives the narrative mills of hypocrisy, history and, consequently, hatred. The cynicism can be played for laughs, as in Yes, Minister; or inspire poetry; or fuel any number of disputes between bar-stool virtue signallers who would call out the author of the American Declaration of Independence as a slave-holder, characterise the United Nations as a “talking shop”, and nod sagely while pronouncing all politicians as “just as bad as each other”.
A most recent contribution to the debate was noted in a book review in The Observer, celebrating the publication of “Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire”, by Harvard academic Caroline Elkins. While being on the one hand a prodigious feat of scholarship and a frank recounting of execrable imperial behaviours, the book is also credited with a “coinage” that is neither literally true nor an accurate reflection of one of the real and undisputed fruits of London’s history.
“Legalised lawlessness” might seem to have been what was going on. Canny manipulations of the law have been among the tools of trade employed by the evil and corrupt of all empires everywhere and always. But in what we identify as London’s Cradle of English, the ascendancy of the rule of law and the history of radical politics in Fleet Street have ensured a far nobler legacy.
It is precisely because of the freeborn spirit and the exploits of the likes of John Lilburne, Richard Carlile, Richard Cobden, John Bright – the list goes on – that the English language developed a facility for “punching up” and not just down, an energy born in the streets and dedicated to realising the equitable and inclusive dreams of Thomas Paine, born an Englishman but a self-willed citizen of the world.