At this moment, I am in the midst of a Swedish book called Mei Wenti! Inget Problem! In other words, no problem, no problem! It is a discourse on how a Swedish woman fell in love with China, and how she learned to love Chinese. One thing that caught my eye was the expression No problem.
When I was in seventh grade, two expressions started sweeping the teenage set "No problemo" and "No way". Perhaps you, too, remember the phenomenon when it was new. To me it seems obvious that using "no problem" came into American English from Latin American Spanish, since the teens I knew were using it as a borrowed expression, even though the Hispanic population of Waukegan was lower than 3% at the time. There is no doubt in my mind that "Inget problem" is a borrowing from American English into Swedish. The amount of American English words and phrases that have become Swedified in the past 40 years is remarkable, and a number of studies and op-ed pieces have been written about this (the op-ed pieces ususally decry the deterioration of Swedish purity by these barbarous Americanisms, but the process continues unabated).
This brings me to the problems I referred to in the title of this posting. Once upon a time, in the area where Waukegan now stands, there was a Potowatomie village, and the language spoken there was replaced by French when the traders came in (and France claimed Illinois as part of New France). But French gave way to English as American settlers from the colonies moved in and after the Louisiana Purchase, Illinois became part of the United States. At the turon of the century, African-American people were moving in from the South to take advantage of the manufacturing work opportunities and white ethnics were moving in from Central and Southern Europe. There was a huge diversity of languages and dialects until the first American-born generation came into their own. When I was a small child, there were still a number of ethnic stores: Greek, Armenian, Swedish come to mind. These stores started to disappear during my teenage and college years, as the folks became more Americanized and fear of integrated schools drove many white ethnics out of Waukegan.
In the late 70s, a few Mexican families appeared in Waukegan and now the Hispanic population is over 50% in Waukegan proper. This is causing a great deal of tension between the remaining white and black population and the new immigrants, and a large part of the anxiety is language.
I was recently home for the Easter holidays, and I was able to experience some of this tension first hand. A number of seventh graders took it into their heads to march for Immigrant Rights and at the same time cut school on Maundy Thursday, which also happened to be one of the first warm and sunny days after a long winter. It seems to have been an idea the youngsters caught from the media, as there were no adults involved in the march. About 200 students wandered through the city, chanting in Spanish. A reporter tried to talk to them, but they did not understand his English. My brother-in-law, who saw this brewing, turned on the radio to the local talk station, and emotions were running high. One person called for a boycott of Waukegan to punish the "lawlessness". Another called Waukegan "a sewer". This prompted a number of calls by those defending Waukegan. Meanwhile, the police followed the kids at a distance, just to make sure that a riot did not break out, but refused to arrest the kids, as they were practicing first amendment rights. The march went on for three hours.
Waukegan has been the setting for a number of fatal clashes, so I thought it was good that the police did not attempt to aggrivate the situation. Nevertheless, I could understand many of the feelings running through the city that day. Since the English and Spanish speaking inhabitants of Waukegan are roughly equivalent, there is a power shift in culture and politics away from English and toward Spanish. Most of the storefronts in my sister's neighborhood have only Spanish signage, which alienates the English-speaking population and is making them feel like foreigners in their city. Many fear that Waukegan will cease to be part of the United States cultural sphere and will become "Mexico Norte". However, many of the kids of the immigrants, those who stayed in school that day, do speak English, just as the American-born children of earlier immigrants learned to do, and their parents are eagerly working toward American citizenship.
So there is a great deal of fear and anxiety in today's Waukegan, a place that has seen language shift three times in the past three hundred years. I believe that those who fear "Mexico Norte" must remember the past history of fears toward immigrants that this country has seen (including the "smelling like sauerkraut" Germans, the "dumb" Swedes, the Italians, Greeks, Armenians, and all the others who have come to this country for better opportunities). Maybe it really is a situation where we should say "No problemo". But language is a barrier, and in order to live and work together, people need to be able to communicate. We shall see how this plays out, but a start would be to have at least a small sign in English in the storefronts so that the English speakers know what is for sale. That's just my humble opinion. Who knows, they may find a new customer!