Here in the U.S. we are taught repeatedly that we live in a “free country”. That phrase has been twisted and misused so much by backward folks in my country who hate progress, or freedom for folks who are not like them. But take away that noise and yes – what a free country this is and how lucky am I to have been born here.
Other English-speaking countries are almost all free as well – the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, even India somehow manages to stay free despite the need to organize 1+ billion people, mostly poor. When I was about 8, our history teacher told us “children, the United States is the only free country on Earth”. Having just visited British Columbia, I held up my hand: “but teacher, what about Canada”? “Oh yes, Brian, Canada is a free country too.” Whew.
And we’ve been free for a long time. Democracy in the US and British Empire while the French had Napoleon, the Germans had Hitler, let alone the Russians, Chinese, Arabs, Africans, and all the South American dictatorships…
So somehow in my subconscious, English was a free language.
Living in the Netherlands also gave me the feeling that English was more of a “free” language than others. Let me explain. Dutch is a language which very few people from other (developed) countries have a reason to learn. So I spoke Dutch, and I would make mistakes and sometimes get laughed at. Or sometimes people just wouldn’t know what to make of it. Or – before I was really fluent in Dutch – my efforts would be dismissed without discussion and the answer would come in English. This reaction had very little to do with malice — it simply was highly unusual for a foreigner to speak the language, except for immigrants from Turkey, Morocco, and so forth. Nevertheless, I felt frustrated. I remembered how in the United States, everyone just spoke English. (Spanish is a huge exception, but for the rest: People Just Communicate In English) Often people would speak with a heavy accent and quite incorrectly, and we *might* sometimes be curious about where they came from, but on an everyday basis, it wasn’t something we give a second thought to. First and foremost, English was just a means of communication. When I lived in the Netherlands trying to fit in as far as language, I was frustrated that I didn’t enjoy what I perceived as the freedom with the language that immigrants and visitors to the United States have. (Again NO criticism of the Dutch meant here – it’s just how the language situation was – and I felt *extremely* welcome there).
Plus, English stood on a pedestal there. It was the indisputable language of communication with the world, and sometimes even within the Netherlands (e.g. Emails between Dutch people at the HQ of the Dutch bank I worked for: English please! I might have to forward your message to Kazakhstan!) English represented openness to the world. Writing a Dutch email was sometimes chastized!
English was, and is increasingly, the language that the world communicated to each other in, regardless of their native language. If a young person from Germany talks to a young person from Holland on holiday in Greece, chances are it will be English. English belongs to everybody. And most of us don’t get upset at accents or bad grammar – it’s the free language of communication.
So there you go – English seems like a free language to me.
Now for Wikipedia.
Moving to Atlanta 3 years ago and knowing almost nothing about it except negative stereotypes about Southern backwardness and poverty, blistering summers and Atlanta traffic, I was surprised to fall in love with the inner, older neighborhoods of Atlanta such as the one where we live in our 1913 bungalow. Trees everywhere including old oaks; 100-year old architecture; neighborhoods each with a name and official border, an own story, an own “feel” and identifiable cores of restaurants and shops you can walk to. Real “places” — which my native Los Angeles lacked, with its sprawl and size. And then the friendliness and hospitality of the people.
I digress. I started to research the history of our house and neighborhood. Along the way, I read about many places in what was then the heart of Atlanta – Downtown. Downtown today is, sadly, a place with some old buildings, but dominated by 1970s architecture. It serves convention visitors with high-rise hotels and national chain steakhouses; houses government offices and Georgia State University, and is dotted with empty lots and parking garages. When I saw pictures of bustling crowds, in front of huge department stores and endless smaller stores, I couldn’t even imagine where that was… yet it was in that slightly unpleasant place, Five Points, that I had been. It felt like this bustling city of beautiful 100-year-old steel and brick buildings existed as a ghost — a Photoshop layer that hadn’t been saved — somehow still existing on this place which looked and felt completely different today.
So I researched more. More on all the major buildings (demolished and standing). More on the surreal everyday existence of a city racially segregated by law. Or on the African-American heroes before Civil Rights, who prospered despite segregation and hate. Or the 1906 Race Riot. Or the Great Fire. More on the streetcar network that once existed.
I knew how easy it was to “throw” my research into a new Wikipedia article so that others could benefit from it. I noticed that even minor articles had hundreds or thousands of viewers per month. I also noticed that if I looked up pretty much any topic, the first Google result was a Wikipedia entry. So I realized – this is how people will truly benefit. Much more than if I wrote a book about a topic. If I simply created a Wikipedia entry, that put that topic on the map. And people would learn about it.
So I become addicted to Wikipedia article creation.
One day, for fun, I wanted to add “Deltalina”. That is the nickname of a real Delta flight attendant who appeared in some funny Delta safety videos. She got quite a bit of press coverage and was a minor celebrity, certainly here in Delta’s hometown of Atlanta.
So I added her to Wikipedia. I added several reliable sources such as major newspapers, CNN, etc. And I added photos of her I took during Atlanta’s Pride festival when she appeared on a float. Mission accomplished. Deltalina was documented. Probably for all posterity.
But one day — just for fun — I decided to add articles in the other languages I know fluently or fairly well. So I added Deltalina in Dutch, Spanish, French, and got some translation help and added her in Russian. The reactions were unexpected but made me wonder if they reflect the societies which speak those languages.
The Spanish and French versions were immediately deleted. Without discussion. This was a shocker because on English Wikipedia, articles are virtually always tagged as “suggested for deletion” for a couple weeks, people can chime in, and a consensus is reached. Nope, not in Spanish or French. Administrator thinks it’s not encyclopedic or relevant. Immediate deletion on the whim of the Administrator. End of discussion.
My appeals to the French administrator were simply ignored.
French: Dictatorial and rude. Fits the stereotype.
My appeals to the Spanish administrator, heard, but denied.
Spanish: Dictatorial, yet chatty. Fits the stereotype!
The Russian version was the biggest surprise of all. A lively discussion and a conclusion that yes, this lady was a minor celebrity. So let’s keep her. Hard to fit *that* into any stereotype!
The Dutch version? Of course, a discussion, and a compromise. Put her in a section of the Delta Air Lines article.
Dutch: Long discussions and a compromise everyone is more or less happy with. Fits the stereotype!
In English Wikipedia there was *never* a discussion. As long as it’s legitimate with a couple of legitimate sources, any topic can go into English Wikipedia.
And that’s what I think is an interesting reflection of the English language – free and open, and open to everyone in the world.
And the *culture* of the English language is free and open. Not just the people of the English-speaking countries are free. But the language itself is free and open.
What do *you* think?