J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

English Language Besieged by Immigrants

Last month Language Log, one of the giants of blogdom, offered host Mark Liberman's item about anti-immigrant worries in Pennsylvania on the eve of the Revolution. That eighteenth-century tempest has, as Liberman notes, a lot of resonance now as Congress prepares for show hearings on immigration in various legislative districts, not necessarily those most affected by the phenomenon.

Back in Benjamin Franklin's time, the immigrant group that supposedly wasn't blending in and learning the language was the Germans. Sociologists have long found that within two or three generations new immigrant families assimilate into the larger American culture. However, some of those eighteenth-century German immigrants are exceptions to that trend. Their descendants maintain their original language, send their children to separate schools, and otherwise resist the cultural influence of those they call the "English." Their birth rate is high, producing a squeeze on land in the regions where they settle in large numbers. They refuse to participate in the national armed services. But for some reason anti-immigrant groups never complain about the Old Order Amish. Why would that be?

When it came to immigration in the 1700s, Massachusetts was far more homogeneous than Pennsylvania—because it was less welcoming to anyone not English (including Scots and Irish). Pennsylvania offered religious freedom; Massachusetts law still favored Congregationalism. Still, there was enough of a German population in Boston that the first person killed in the Revolutionary political conflict was a child of immigrants from Langensteinbach: Christopher Seider. Of the next five men killed, in the Boston Massacre, Patrick Carr was from Ireland and Crispus Attucks was probably from the Natick Indian community—both ethnic minorities, and perhaps both linguistic ones as well.


john maass said...

Mr. Bell:
I enjoy this blog, and wish you the best in continuing your efforts. May you have all the time and energy to do so!
Best regards,
John Maass

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, John! I'm doing a poor job following through on plans to expand the links from Boston 1775 to other blogs, but one I've earmarked is your own Student of History blog. A wide range of topics to enjoy!