From An Claidheamh Soluis, 11 February 1905.
The statement that language is an essential of nationality does not necessarily imply that corresponding to every separate nationality there must be a separate language. Nationality, as we have insisted, is a compound, the sum total of many elements. Two or more nations may hold certain elements of their nationality in common, and quite obviously often do.
The French, the Spaniards and the Italians have many common characteristics, though they are three well-marked and distinct nationalities. Now, language does not differ in kind from the other elements of nationality, it differs only in relative importance. There is nothing to prevent two or more nations from possessing a language in common any more than there is anything to prevent them from holding any other characteristics in common.
It is true that two or more nations speaking the same language is not a phenomenon of frequent occurrence, and that for a reason which is fairly apparent. Either of two things commonly happens, and it depends on circumstances which. Either each race ultimately works out a separate language for itself, by the process of gradually modifying the parent speech, or else the most vigorous of the group absorbs the others. Whenever neither of these alternatives happens, there is an historical explanation.
Now, let it be posited that the United States is a nation, and that it holds one element of its nationality in common with England. The fact is inconsistent with no part of the Gaelic League’s case. The English language – or perhaps we should say English as spoken in America – is an element in American nationality. The United States is what it is by reason of possessing certain characteristics, and one of these characteristics is English speech. If the United States were to commence to speak Spanish or French tomorrow morning, would anyone contend that it would still be precisely the same nation that it is today? American nationality connotes, amongst other things, the speaking of English. A French-speaking American is as much a contradiction as a French-speaking Englishman.
Everything is explained by history, and the explanation of the fact that the United States speaks the same language as England is patent. The United States is really only an English colony which has grown into nationhood. It never abandoned its language, never adopted a new one. It was English-speaking from the start. Remember that when “Cousin” Jonathan first broke away from the apron-strings of the mother country, the said mother country was quite a venerable and respectable dame.
She had Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon and the English Bible. She had a distinct, perfect, and fully-developed language, which she had imparted to “Cousin” Jonathan, thereby enthralling his vocal organs and his mind. “Cousin” Jonathan merely carried his language to America, – and stuck to it. He never threw it aside for another. On the contrary, he imposed it on everyone who came to share his fortunes. He set to work to build up a nationality of his own around the English language.
That language he has modified somewhat, and may modify more as time goes on. As before, there are historical explanations of the fact that he has not developed a new language. Steam and electricity have kept him in touch with the mother country, the influence of a great literature to which, equally with the Briton, he is the heir, has enthralled him. Had he been in some way cut off from all communication with England and English literature, he would doubtless by this time have so modified his English speech that it would be for practical purposes a new language.
If America has succeeded in developing and maintaining a distinctive nationality in spite of her English speech, why, it may be asked, could not Ireland do the same? There is no parallel between the two cases. The essence of America’s case is that she has not thrown aside one language for another, but on the contrary has simply retained the speech with which she started. In our case, we should be giving up a speech which is our own for one which is not our own. We should be doing what America would do if she were to cast English aside for Chinese or Choctaw.
Far from telling against the Gaelic League’s case, the linguistic history of America really provides several most telling arguments in its favour. Thus, whilst the fact that the United States, owing to historic causes, speaks the same language as England, is not inconsistent with its separate nationality, it is yet in many ways a disadvantage from the American point of view. For one thing, it makes London the intellectual capital of the United States. Irresistibly, American literary men and artists are drawn to England, and make it their home. America, intellectually, is a province. She has not yet produced anything commandingly great in art or literature. It is a sort of natural law that creative activity centres round the capital of a race. England has passed her prime when the United States parted company with her; yet how vast has been England’s contribution to the world’s art and literature since 1776, in comparison with America’s!
The fact that unity of speech in some way knits America and England together is recognised by everyone. Admission of an affinity of some sort is behind all the talk of an “Anglo-American Alliance.” Why “Cousin” Jonathan at all? Why, “Hands Across the Sea,” “Anglo-Saxon Race,” and the numerous other catch-cries heard on both sides of the Atlantic? Say what you will, the idea that England and the United States are in some way one, is an idea which is firmly rooted in both countries. And what does it rest on but the fact of unity of speech? “Race,” “empire,” “nation,” may be each separately and distinctly definable, but if you say, as many say, that England and America are a unity, call it a “race,” “an empire,” a “federation,” an “alliance,” or what you will, your sole reason is this, that both speak the same language. Both may be, and are, nations; but everyone who has eyes to see and a mind to think recognises that there is between them a link stronger than any mere physical bond – the link of a common language and literature.