NPR showed up on my Facebook feed with an interesting story about the pledge of allegiance. Like pretty much all American kids, I grew up reciting the pledge with my hand over my heart every morning at school. I don’t think we consciously saluted a flag or anything – although there probably was a flag somewhere in the classroom. In America, there usually is one everywhere you look. (As an aside, I make taking pictures of all the unusual places one can find flags a sport when I’m visiting the US.)
The article recounts how “pledge allegiance” is a hapax – meaning that it’s a phrase that only occurs in that one place (like “wardrobe malfunction”, another example).”Under God” is another such phenomenon – it was taken from the Gettysburg Address but it had its meaning changed slightly in the process. Actually, the meaning of the phrase isn’t at all clear – see the article for details.
What I found most interesting are the following paragraphs:
Really, the whole pledge is just one big hapax legomenon, a string of syllables that only comes to life in classrooms and school assemblies. But there’s a lesson for children in that: The attachment to flag and country is a unique bond that requires a special language of its own. In theory, the pledge could do most of the same work if we had children say it in Anglo-Saxon or Arapaho, or if we replaced it with the lyrics to “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” They’re going to turn the words into jabberwocky anyway: “I led a pigeon to the flag,” “one Asian under guard.”
So do the words matter at all? Well, yes, in a way. Reciting the pledge doesn’t teach kids anything about the meanings of its words. But learning to speak American involves something more than that — it’s knowing how to incant them, too.
First, let me say that I too have made jabberwocky out of the pledge. “indivisible with justice for all” was an especially hard phrase, and I remember making “which” into “witch” for years. Second, and this is my main point, my years in the States did teach me how to speak American. Case in point, I remember being at a lacrosse game in Boston with my Dutch classmates a couple years ago. We all stood for the national anthem, and I remember standing there with my hand over my heart, appalled that my classmates talked through the anthem. I doubt I’d have the same reaction if it were the Dutch anthem being played.
I’m not very patriotic at all, but when I’m at a baseball game, or looking at Fourth of July fireworks, or experiencing some other kind of patriotic display while the anthem is sung, I have to confess to a swell of love and patriotic feeling. Even Disney World did it to me last year – the parade on Main Street was so American I had to blink back tears. The Netherlands never does that to me. When we sing the national anthem in church on the Sunday close to the Queen’s birthday, or when a member of the royal family dies, I feel close to the community around me (one main reason I go to church). But singing any hymn, psalm, or worship song has the same effect. No, it’s something about the American context that provokes those patriotic feelings in me.
I think it’s clear: I speak American, all right.