I learned recently that a fundamental shift in American thought occurred with the civil war. They started using incorrect grammar.
Before the Civil War, Americans would correctly say, “The United States are…, for example, divided.” After the war “United States” became a singular noun, such as “The United States is unified.” American identity shifted to connect more to the nation than to the state, and so the grammar mistake became the norm.
Another interesting grammar rule in English is our use of capitalization. Generally, proper nouns are capitalized and common nouns are not. However, we have one blantant exception: “I”. Why do we capitalize this singular first-person pronoun regardless of its placement in the sentence? No other language does this, not even closely related languages, such as Dutch, German, or French. When did this happen? (Read a NY Times article here for the answer to this question.) What effects has this had on our society? And on our identity?
When we think of identity, the question that we usually think of is: “Who am I?” It is rarely “Who are we?” It is interesting also how we order our words. For example, we place a our personal name before our family names in contrast to most Asian cultures where the family name goes first. When we write our address we start with specifics and move to the city, state, and country. Chinese, for one, is opposite.
So, what’s the point. It is not that we should change our grammar. And it is not that collectivism is better or worse than individualism.
We are shaped by our histories, and the way we think even is shaped by our language. When you think of yourself and ask, “who are ‘we’?”, what is the primary group you are thinking of?