Dykes, broads and carrs: the meaning of English

Wake. Wash. Broad, carr and navigation. My personal, ambiguous favourite, dyke.

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Tan sails; 12th century priory; the River Bure at sea level

Words with multiple meanings, complex etymology, a storied history. Such words are intimately associated with the intermingling of land and water, with places of the borderline, places where identity is fluid.  The Norfolk Broads are such a world: manmade, diverse, habitat-rich, somewhere people are making all sorts of good livings, yet also isolated, bleak and possibly dangerous.

Like English, a language which is amended, adapted, evolved, flexible.  Currents come in and out of English.  We welcome words, use and love new idioms brought home from journeys or grown by teenagers. We celebrate hip-hop, rap and poetry, revel in changed language while we use Shakespeare everyday.

What it is to be English is not about, or not only about, heritage.  Which bit of ‘English’ is Iceni, Pict, Norman or Flemish? At what point can we put in a pin and say ‘this, this bit is English and everything since has been a mistake’?

And where does that put London?  London with its enormity, its diversity and welcomingness, its sheer scale – twice the size of Scotland. Is London, England?  And if not, what is the rest of England if it is not London?  The country is shaped, twisted, by the gravitational pull of the capital, the tug to the heart of capital.

We can define Englishness by looking back, by grabbing at moments of heritage, our extraordinary cathedral cities, our landscape of arable and stonewall and hedgerow, the glory of language and law. At a time when very word ‘English’ was defined by dominion. We can – we will – argue, endlessly, about taxation, immigration, devolution.  On top of all this, beside it and between the lines, we must also ask how we model our Englishness on the language – on the flexibility, wealth and, yes, the sheer reach of English. Poetry may be the one thing which gives us hope.

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About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my websites to find out more.
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