Sunday, April 24, 2005

Disturbing the dead

So, this week a few of the papers picked up on the shocking story of grave-robbing in the English countryside. That get your attention? Ah, well, perhaps I'll admit that was a cheap linguistic trick (the election is rubbing off on me), and the story is actually about a small DNA sample being taken, with permission, from the 400 year old grave of a relative of one Captain Bartholomew Gosnold.

Who? Why? Well, though Captain BG has, until now, been almost completely forgotten, he was a legend in his own 16th century lunchtime. In those heady days of Elizabethan exploration and/or plundering of the New World, he set off to establish a permanent settlement on the Eastern seaboard of America. He first landed in the area he named Cape Cod, but it took a second expedition for his plan to be realised as Jamestown, near the James river in Virginia (guess which king was on the English throne at the time...). Though as this was a bit on the hot and swampy side, he got a fever and died there. Game over; history marches relentlessly on without him.

But now American archaeolgists want to determine whether this body they've just found is his. Why all the fuss? Well, they regard him as one of the key figures in the European settlement of America, and they want to restore his name and status. It is claimed (rather grandly) that without Captain BG and Jamestown, the Spanish expeditionary forces might have held sway in the territorial claim-staking of the times, and America would never have become an English speaking nation.

So far, a curious side-story about English if, like me, you like a bit of swashbuckling and derring-do, but erm, let's just stop and think about this one because there are, in fact, far more language issues to this story than meet the eye. This is because the other thing rumbling on in the American press is a whole shedload of stuff to do with certain states using legal processes to try and make English the official language because they feel so keenly the pressure it is under from other languages, particularly Spanish. Two organisations, English First and US English, are campaigning vigorously to make America a monolingual nation, and if you thought Michael Howard's immigration rhetoric was scary last week, you wanna read these guys. Well, erm, actually, you probably don't...

So, I can't help thinking that whilst Captain Bartholomew Gosnold is undoubtedly an interesting character from history, all this DNA testing may have rather more to do with English speaking Americans needing to find an English speaking hero to compete with Cristoforo Colombo. And on those grounds, perhaps the dead might be better left undisturbed in their graves.

The man who went to search for America

English First and US English (these people scare me...)

Read factual stuff about American English


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