Speaking English in Colorado

  • Posted: November 20, 2014
  • Category: Politics
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Spending a month traveling through Europe is a learning experience. To my clueless ears, it sounds like everyone is speaking in a different language. I speak English, more or less, and that is it. In the space of some ten days, I visited five cities speaking five different languages, as well as hearing so many others in the streets and markets. As you might expect, this gabble of tongues greatly complicates ordering my morning coffee, a downside to international travel for sure. My better self believes that learning a second language, possibly Spanish, is something I should do in order to be a better person. But we all know that confrontations between reality and our better selves create a disillusionment that forms and defines our real self, the self that actually exists in the real world.

God has imposed upon us limitations of time, energy and will power. Learning a second language requires us to use up a great deal of that limited time, energy and will power. Very few of us, lost as we are in the thickets of adult life, can learn to speak another language without giving up everything else. In the fantasy reality where exists my better half, this time and frustration would be worth it. Some mish mash of altruism and the Brotherhood of Man appears to animate my better self. Prudence requires that our better selves be kept well away from investment decisions and other serious matters.

My real self is practiced in the art of self-indulgent procrastination, evading the actuality of doing something, secure in the knowledge that there really is no need to do so. As experience in international travel makes clear, the English language is spoken everywhere, at least everywhere that I am likely to travel. As international travel with a group of tourists from the United States makes clear, we all feel guilty about the position we find ourselves in. It doesn’t seem right that everyone else speaks our language, but we can’t speak anyone else’s language.

Back before education became confused with politics, most high school graduates had been exposed to the term, lingua franca. Lingua franca is the classy name for a trade language. In a world with an endless number of different languages and cultures, a language that everyone speaks is necessary if commerce and travel are to happen. It so happens that this language, the lingua franca, will usually be the language of the dominant culture of the time, the one most people want to trade with. It is quite clear that English is the lingua franca of the modern world.

So in that earnest way of middle class America, we accept and depend upon the benefits of our dominant culture, but feel guilty about our doing so. There is a sense that we are being unfair, selfish even. This guilt is probably a product of attending Sunday School those many years ago. Given the cultural trends of present day America, future generations will likely be spared such guilty feelings. Unless English is supplanted by Mandarin, our grandchildren will probably travel the world, secure in the knowledge that they will be understood wherever they go, just as we do, but unlike ourselves they will feel no guilt about their lack of a second language.

English is either the first or second language of our world. Learning a second language for native English speakers is an affectation, a hobby or very specialized niche job requirement. But why are we so lucky? Is it because we have been unfair in our dealings with the non-English speaking world? As the Chinese of only one short generation ago so quaintly accused us, are we capitalist roaders, counter revolutionaries and running dogs of imperialists? Honesty requires that we raise our hands and answer, “Guilty”.

Western Civilization, the West, has been all those things of which we are accused, and more. But the lingua franca made necessary by Western Civilization could have been many languages. Why not German, or French, or Spanish, or Russian, or any number of others? Even the Turkish of the Ottoman Empire could have been a legitimate choice. But instead, English is the lingua franca, and has been for a time now measured in centuries. How come?

In hindsight, a big part of the reason why the world speaks English revolved around us. By us, I mean the United States, or more properly North America, because our financial presence in the world makes our native language the favorite in the lingua franca sweepstakes.  But our present United States was by no means a foregone conclusion, neither was the fact that we all speak the same language. In the early days of our continent, the smart money would have come down on North America becoming a polyglot hodgepodge of territories mirroring the Europe from which we sprang. And then on a November day some 255 years ago, the odds changed.

There is a small bay on the western coast of France, Quiberon Bay by name. On mid-afternoon of November 20, 1759, a fleet of the British Royal Navy engaged a French fleet of similar size in a contest that would go far to determine the language spoken in North America, as well as the lingua franca of Asia. It was the fifth year of war, a war fought around the world. It was histories first truly world wide war, but is generally known as the Seven Years War. We in the United States call it the French & Indian War, while our Canadian cousins in Montreal call it the War of the Conquest. The Germans and Swedes call it the Pomeranian War while it is known as the Third Carnatic War on the Indian subcontinent.

On that day, some twenty one French ships of the line made for the shelter of Quiberon Bay as they ran before a fierce heavy late fall storm in the North Atlantic. They had earlier encountered elements of a Royal Navy force in the open sea, but they thought the presence of the storm precluded their accepting battle. The French admiral, one Marshal de Conflans by name, felt a defensive anchorage in the storm tossed bay the prudent action given the strength of the storm, even though Quiberon Bay was treacherous with cross currents, rocks and shoals. Conflans great advantage was that the bay was well known to the local pilots aboard the French ships while the Royal Navy would not dare enter such an unknown confined space during a storm in the presence of hostile ships. The English would wait outside the bay, in open sea near the coast suffering damage and wear from the storm.

Sheltering in the bay until the storm passed would allow for the French to determine the time and place of the battle necessary to force their way through the British force. The French warships were on their way to rendezvous with a large French invasion force being loaded onto troop transports and assembled at the mouth of the Loire River. The warships were to provide escort for this French army to cross the English Channel to the Scottish coastline. The French soldiers would then land in Scotland, forcing the English into a battle on their own ground, as well as allowing the Scottish rebels to revolt and declare their independence from England.

Sailing into the teeth of the storm, the English fleet was determined to bring the French to battle. The opposing fleets had sighted each other in the early morning, the French turning for the shelter of Quiberon Bay with the English in pursuit. Throughout the day the fleets ran before the wind. Making the safety of the bay in mid-afternoon, the French were astonished to see the British following them in, braving the hidden rocks and treacherous currents. Instead of the expected standoff to wait out the storm, the surrounding shores began to echo with the thunder of naval cannons.

Both the French and the British ships were of a class of ships known as ship of the line, the battleship of the 18th & 19th Century. A wooden sailing ship of some 2,500 tons with three masts, a ship of the line had three decks above the water line. A ship of the line was sometimes referred to as a Seventy Four, so called because of the number of cannons on the ship. Each of the three decks on the ship carried an equal number of cannon on each side. In action, it was expected that the ships would sail in line, giving rise to their name, and fire at their target as they came to be broadside of it, giving us a word inheritance, the term “broadside” in reference to a collision or venting of anger.

The cannons themselves fired solid iron balls weighing up to 32 pounds. As the ships were made of wood, they were very near unsinkable. Therefore the object of battle was to hit the enemy ship’s masts with the iron balls from the cannon, causing them to fall like tall trees being chopped down. With no mast, the ship would be adrift and easily captured by boarding parties or pounded to splinters by cannon fire. In action the iron cannon shot would strike the wooden timbers of the ship, shattering the wood, exploding jagged wooden splinters in all directions, as effective as shrapnel bursts. The cinders from burning cannon shot packing and glowing bits of incompletely burnt gunpowder made fire an ever present danger amid the wood of the ship and canvas of the sails.

Given that the ships of the time made only a few miles per hour under full sail, the opposing sailors had been watching each other for some 6-7 hours by late afternoon when they went into action. They had watched their enemy grow steadily closer as their ships tossed and heaved in the stormy Atlantic in what seemed a chase in slow motion. Many times during the day the sailors had been ordered up the rope ladders onto the spars high up on the swaying masts, continuously adjusting the ship’s sails to gain any possible speed advantage as the winds shifted or changed. Now as the day drew to a climax, they had been ordered to their guns, crouched behind those guns in the dark low ceilinged decks, swaying as the ship heaved with the waves. Upon command from the quarterdeck, the wooden gun ports would be opened and the guns run out.

As the lower gun ports were barely above the water line in a calm sea, their opening would drench the gun crews with ice cold North Atlantic sea water as the ship wallowed in a wave trough. Shaking from the cold bath, they would then catch a glimpse of an enemy ship some 50 yards distant through the open port as the ship climbed the wave to its crest. The gun captain, often a midshipman no more than12 or 13 years old, would give the command to fire and the gunner would touch off the gun’s fuse. Then there was a load roar, deafening in the closed spaces of the below decks, as the heavy cast iron cannon kicked back into the deck. Hopefully no arms or legs or other body parts would be in the way of the gun’s recoil. Black choking gunpowder smoke would cut off the view through the port, before blowing back into the closed space of the deck.

In the dark and swirl of choking smoke, the cannon would be levered the rest of the way back into the closed space of the deck. Hopefully a wave would not break the cannon, all three and a half tons of it, loose to roll uncontrollably around inside the closed spaces of the deck, crushing men against the wooden walls. A soaking sponge would be forced down the mouth of the cannon to put out any sparks from gunpowder residue remaining in the gun. Measured cans of gunpowder would be rammed down the mouth of the gun, followed by cotton packing and the cannon ball itself. The gun would then be levered back out the port and fired again. As the sailors worked the guns, showers of wooden splinters swept the deck as enemy cannon balls hit the wooden walls of their ship. In the sailors’ mind was always the worrisome prospect of a sudden shuddering stop as their ship hit a large rock or sandbar.

It was a heart stopping risk for the British fleet. They were all that stood against a French invasion of their home. Twenty five large sailing ships with very limited ability to maneuver coming under full sail into a dangerous and unknown bay to face an enemy who knew it well during a full fledged November storm. The following morning could well have seen the British ships foundered on rocks with desperate men clinging to drifting wood, shores lined with wreckage and the still mangled bodies of their crews. The French could easily dispose of any Royal Navy ships surviving the rocks and wind in the morning. Then with the French fleet free to resume an unopposed rendezvous with the invasion force, the war could well be over with Britain forced to sue for peace.

Instead, by nightfall the French fleet was either captured, burning or in flight. With the destruction of the French warships, the threat of invasion disappeared as well. Quiberon Bay was a turning point, not only for the Seven Years War, but for world history. Quiberon Bay established beyond question the dominance of the Royal Navy on the world’s oceans. That dominance would last until World War II, where the torch would be passed to the US Navy, a close cousin of the Royal Navy. That dominance of the world’s oceans continues to this day, a key foundation of our Western Civilization.

As for the Seven Years War, after Quiberon Bay France was on the defensive and could no longer threaten the British homeland. Gradually throttled into submission, France was forced to surrender a few short years later in 1763. In the French surrender, Canada became a British colony rather than a French colony. India and the parts of Asia open to the West, i.e. the future Hong Kong, Singapore, et alia, became British, not French. Great stretches of the interior of what was to become the United States, places like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Ohio, the Mississippi River basin had been French. Now North America west of the Appalachians was British and spoke English. Florida became British as well, not Spanish. It was the beginning of the end for Spain’s colonies in the New World. If the Royal Navy, Spain’s traditional enemy for the past two centuries, controlled the Atlantic Ocean, of what use were Spanish colonies in the Americas?

Perhaps rather than feel guilt over our language’s dominance, we might take a moment to remember the men who made it possible. Ethan Hawke was the British admiral who led his fleet into harms way at Quiberon Bay. While Hawke does not stand atop a 170 foot column in a London Square named Quiberon Bay, there is no doubt that he stands shoulder to shoulder with Nelson and the other great names of the Royal Navy. The tactics and aggressive seamanship that he demonstrated at Quiberon Bay became the signature tactic of the Royal Navy repeated by Nelson and others at such future victories as Aboukir Bay, the Saintes, Cape St. Vincent, Trafalgar.

The 16,000 seaman of the royal Navy that followed Ethan Hawke into Quiberon Bay on that stormy November day are mostly nameless and unremembered today. But it was those seamen, clambering up masts onto spars fifteen stories above the water in a November storm, serving their guns in the cramped quarters of dark and smoke choked decks who decided the day. Every time we speak English, rather than French, or Russian or Spanish, in Colorado, or for that matter anywhere in that part of the United States west of the eastern seaboard, we unknowingly honor their memory.

 

 

 

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