Language and Immigration

When I type ‘oldest reference to immigration’ into Google the first link is Wikipedia (unsurprisingly): ‘Historical Immigration to Great Britain’. I click the link, hoping to find some interesting facts and statistics for my blog post.

As I’m reading through though I’m struck by something; right from the start a word keeps cropping up over and over, ‘invasion’.

‘The first Roman invasion of Great Britain was led by Julius Caesar in 55 BC.’ (Wikipedia)

And I understand why. When we look at our language and its many varied influences we do so by looking at the various times Britain was invaded by the Romans, Vikings, Normans etc. It makes sense, as battles and invasions are loud, important things that tend to be recorded by multiple sources and so are remembered centuries later.

The instances, sometimes hundreds of years, between these invasion when immigration was driven by other factors, such as trade, are less well documented.

We are taught about these invasions in school. Perhaps it is not surprising that so many people are still talking about ‘invasions’ of immigration.


We now come to the actual reason for this blog…

President Donald Trump gave an address, his first address, from the Oval Office at the start of this year. He spoke about immigration and his rhetoric had changed.

President Donald Trump’s speech from the Oval office: January 2019.

“This is a humanitarian crisis – a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul,” Trump told primetime viewers, describing the situation at the border. He argued that the current immigration system allows, “vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs” to prey on immigrants, especially women and children.”

Compared to…

Donald Trump: June 2015.

“They’re sending people that have a lot of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Why has his language changed? Why have we gone from ‘They’re rapists’ to ‘a humanitarian crisis’?

We see this change in rhetoric in response to changing attitudes towards immigrants in the USA. Greater understanding of a situation leads, we hope, to greater empathy and sympathy. This in turn means that politicians must adjust their rhetoric or risk losing the support of their base. What was bold and brave now seems callous and cruel.

We often think that it is our leaders who influence us but actually it is often it is the electorate, with the power of social media, who influence our leaders.

Have you noticed any changing rhetoric?

David Crystal in The Story of English in 100 Words has some very interesting, more nuanced, ideas about language and immigration. He explains how languages bounced between countries, changing gradually and evolving in unexpected ways. It is well worth a read.


Comments below.


Football’s coming home…


I’m not sure if it is. However, the song itself is interesting from an English Language perspective.

Three Lion’s was originally released in 1996 and had nothing to do with England winning the world cup.

Initially the song referred to the fact that England was hosting the world cup.

It’s interesting that over the years the song has come to mean England winning the World Cup with various bands producing covers.

This process is called semantic change: the change in the meaning of words over time.

This is an interesting article about semantic change both in British English and in English spoken in other countries.

It is well worth a read.