Monday, April 24, 2006

No problem and other problems

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!


C. M. Mayo said...

It would be interesting to know more about how Canada has handled this issue with French and English. About Mexican immigrants in the northwest: a really fascinating book is Philip Garrison's collection of essays, BECAUSE I DON'T HAVE WINGS, just out from U of Arizona Press.

Liz said...

The stores run by non-Spanish speakers could equally well put a sign in Spanish in the window explaining what's for sale!

Another thought:

What if the small sign in English would bring monolingual English speakers who expect the people in the store to speak English, when they don't?

I actually think that the English-only speakers expect, and feel entitled, to feel comfortable all the time and not face uncertainty. So... what if that is actually not a reasonable expectation? I hope instead that the english-only speakers could put aside their sense of entitlement, walk into the store and look for themselves to see what's in there, and deal with it if they have a moment of feeling silly. Basic politeness goes a long way in those situations.

Liz said...

By the way, one way for people "with papers" to participate in the May Day general strike - Don't be documented. Leave your ID cards and papers at home for the day as a small gesture of solidarity.

I put some links together about the Day Without Immigrants on May 1st, and the rallies, marches, general strike, and other actions to protest HR 4437 - over here on Blogher - Latin America.

Laura the 06 Host said...

Interestingly enough, the English language stores in Waukegan do have a great deal of Spanish language signage, since this reaches their Spanish language customers. Reading these bilingual signs has given me a short course in Spanish vocabulary.

Laura the 06 Host said...

Another thought, most other ethnic stores are bilingual. I am thinking of the German deli here in Seattle where I can walk in and speak German. Or the Chinese stores here, where one chooses either Chinese or English. I agree that politeness goes a long way, and myself I have no problem walking into a Spanish language store and doing the point and smile, but also feel that Spanish is beginning to get preferential treatment as a priviledged second language that other ethnic groups are not able to aquire. This is due to the major demographic shift in the past two decades. Maybe we are looking into a future where residents of the United States must be able to speak both Spanish and English, as Canada has done with French and English, but would this be beneficial? Now I did meet a taxi driver in Montreal who spoke French, English, Portuguese and Lebanese Arabic, so becoming multilingual is not a bad thing, but speakers from other ethnic groups would have the added burden of achieving fluency in three or four languages instead of two.