[From the Syracuse Sunday Herald, 19 March 1897, page 28]
Syracuse’s Foreign Born Population—Some Statistics.
“Thy speech betrayeth thee.”
(By J. Loos.)
Foreigners form a large percentage of the population of Syracuse. According to Boyd’s city directory there are about 30,000 of them out of a total of 134,835 inhabitants, or 22 per cent. These are distributed as follows: Germans, 8,900; Irish, 6,625; Italians, 5,000; Englishmen, 2,700; Canadians, 2,500; Polish, 1,500; Russians, 1,000; Norwegians, 400; Scotch, 400; Swiss, 210; French, 300; Austrians, 150; Swedes, 90; Danes, 75; Hungarians, 50; Chinese, 30.
Deducting from this total the immigrants from Ireland, England, Scotland and Canada, there will still be left about 18,000 people, or 13 per cent who came from foreign countries where English is not spoken. It is interesting to note the gradual process of assimilation of these strangers in a strange land, and the very marked difference in the ease with which they acquire the English language. Considering the low degree of intelligence of a large class of immigrants, the wonder is not that they are so slow in learning English, but that they learn it at all. English offers one great advantage to the learner, in that it requires only about 500 words, properly selected, to carry on an ordinary conversation for every-day practical purposes, and these are to a great extent Anglo-Saxon words, easy to understand and to use. There are certain well-determined factors which control the acquisition of any foreign tongue. Language, like music or painting, is a special faculty and not altogether dependent upon a high degree of culture.
In European hotels porters may be found who can converse in half a dozen languages and yet be unable to tell a noun from a verb, while on the other hand some really intelligent and well read foreigners can be found right here in Syracuse who after a residence of several years are unable to learn English beyond the most meager vocabulary. Then age and sex are important factors. It is a noteworthy fact that women possess more aptitude in acquiring a foreign idiom than men. A man past 25 years, or women past 30 years, have but slight chances for becoming proficient in any foreign language, even when well educated. Teachers of languages will bear testimony to this fact. How much more difficult must it be then for those having but little education and who are of mature age. It is easy for a certain class of ultra-patriots to issue the stern decree that foreigners should use the language of their adopted country before they can be made citizens. The educated foreigners, having previously studied ancient and modern languages, master English speedily enough so far as reading and writing it is concerned, but they seldom, if ever, lose certain peculiarities of accent and pronunciation.
Immigrants speaking a foreign tongue are utterly dismayed, when first they hear the strange language. They strain their ears in a vain endeavor to understand the apparently meaningless sounds. They watch with pathetic earnestness the movements of the speaker’s lips, the expression of his face, but all in vain. A feeling of hopelessness overcomes them and they wish they had never left their homes. If they happen to settle down and find employment where none of their countrymen are near, their lot is pitiable indeed, and their daily life in the factory or in any other employment is a continuous performance of comedy, farce, and tragedy, and in the long run annoying to both master and servant. But little by little the ear becomes accustomed to distinguish words where at first everything seemed but a long string of uninterrupted sounds. The names of common objects are first learned and then, with the aid of gestures, the way is opened for a more rapid conquest of the obstinate English language with its exasperating twistings of the tongue and lips, its lispings and gurglings. It is a strange fact, but very obvious and easily verified, that the average foreigner has a special aptitude for acquiring slang phrases and cuss-words. Those who began the study of English in their native land find their knowledge very nearly worthless because of an impractical vocabulary and an outrageous pronunciation. As a rule they have to begin it all over again. English as “she is spoke” or murdered by foreigners has been a profitable theme for humorists in the past and present, but it is serious business with the immigrant. The Rough Riders storming San Juan hill displayed no greater heroism than the hosts of foreigners in their desperate charges against their giant foe, the English language. But while this lifelong struggle is going on they cling with more or less pertinacity to their mother tongues. In no other tongue can they converse so freely, express their thoughts and feelings of joy and sorrow.
The German language is spoken here in Syracuse by at least 25,000 people, including immigrants and their children, although the latter prefer to speak English. This includes also the Austrians, many of the Russians and most of the Swiss. If would be a mistake to suppose that the German language generally spoken here is the real high German. The latter is understood by all, and can be used with more or less proficiency by the great majority, but as a matter of fact most Germans here speak a great variety of dialects, some of them being very much alike, and others differing widely from each other and from the real high German. Those Americans, having only a “book knowledge” of German, would be utterly confounded by hearing some of these dialects and trying to understand them, while they themselves would be readily understood. With a little practice it is easy for Germans to determine by the dialect from what part of the fatherland any fellow-countryman comes. It is safe to assume that not more than 10 per cent use high German constantly.
German were among the earliest settlers in Syracuse and Onondaga county. From the beginning they congregated in the northern part of the present city, where for many years the German language reigned supreme in business and social life. Many of those old settlers are even now unable to converse easily in English and their reading is confined exclusively to German books and papers. For more than fifty years they had their own churches, schools, societies, stores, saloons, artisans, tradesmen, doctors, druggists, etc., which relieved them from the dire necessity of learning English, but things have changed considerably. German churches and societies have hitherto been the main agencies in preserving the language. There are nine of the former and nearly forty of the latter to be found here. German schools are steadily maintained in connection with all German Catholic churches, while Protestant churches leave that part to the individual efforts of their pastors. Independent German schools were conducted by private individuals during the ’60s and the early ’70s [1860’s and early 1870’s], but they met with only indifferent success and encouragement. Among the societies the Syracuse Turn Verein exerted the greatest influence in fostering the German language, and in a similar degree the various singing societies. The influx of new immigrants also acted as a constant leaven. During the present decade immigration was practically at a standstill and the effect is noticeable in the rapid encroachment of English in social and business life. The German press of Syracuse never flourished like a green bay tree, although it is surprising how in thousands of families German papers are kept. The largest part of them come from New York, Buffalo, Baltimore and other German publishing centers. Syracuse boasts at present of only one weekly German paper [the Syracuse Union], while the German of Albany and Rochester manage to support each two dailies. On the whole, it may safely be said that the German language in Syracuse will continue so long as the first generation is alive, but the second generation is swiftly becoming Anglicized. Those of the third generation are very often disposed to disclaim any knowledge of that tongue, and would gladly deny their German descent if they could successfully change and disguise their names.
Since 1880 Italian immigration has assumed huge proportions. They came to Syracuse in large numbers when the West Shore railroad was being built, and though they are constantly coming and going, their number has become a rather constant factor. The character of this class of immigrants has also changed to a great extent. Many of them have settled here for good. Their living together in colonies and working in large gangs under “bosses” of their own nationality explains why they make so little progress in learning English, although they are natural linguists of no mean order. There are comparatively few educated people among them, and the great majority of our Italian citizens use a number of dialects, differing rather widely from the genuine article. The mixing of words of two languages, so common among the Germans, is but very little noticed among the Italians. They are naturally impetuous in manner and speech and the use of a foreign tongue is a barrier to fluent speaking. For this reason they prefer their own idiom while at work or while lounging leisurely at eventide in front of their dwellings and resorts.
Polish immigration to Syracuse is of comparatively recent date. The establishment of the Solvay works provided them with attractive employment, and they are gathered here now to the number of 1,500, dwelling chiefly in Geddes and Solvay. Polish is a most difficult language to learn, and the Polish people seem to be content when they have sufficiently mastered their own idiom. They are very slow in learning English, mostly because they are so very clannish and keep by themselves. Many of them are able to speak a little German of a very peculiar kind. These come from the German-Polish borderland.
Most of the Russians living here are Hebrews who left the Czar’s dominions on account of religious persecutions. They are Russians only in name, because Hebrews are cosmopolitans. They are great linguists, and most of them speak German, or that peculiar idiom called “Yiddish,” (Juedisch or Jewish). Their abode is the Seventh ward.
Although there [are] but 300 native Frenchmen here, there is in reality a much larger French colony here, because most of the so-called Canadians are French Canadians. They have a flourishing church of their own. Everyone knows that Canadian French has certain peculiarities, but it is easily intelligible and does not sound half so barbarously as some of the German dialects. There are also some Swiss from the French speaking cantons who help to swell the French colony of Syracuse.
The Scandinavians are represented here in such small numbers that their presence is hardly observable. Hungarians do not find Syracuse a congenial climate and the few that are here have either no inclination or ability to learn English. “John Chinaman,” on the contrary, shows a meritorious willingness to speak “American,” though his ability to do so is somewhat limited. His vocabulary is surprisingly small.