Jonathan Yardley

Book review: Robert McCrum's 'Globish'

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 23, 2010


How the English Language Became The World's Language

By Robert McCrum

Norton. 331 pp. $26.95

Robert McCrum takes as his title a word coined a decade and a half ago by Jean-Paul Nerrière, "a French-speaking former IBM executive and amateur linguistic scholar" who "had noticed that non-native English speakers in the Far East communicated more successfully in English with their Korean and Japanese clients than competing British or American executives." He thought of what they spoke as "decaffeinated English" and called it "Globish." It "starts from a utilitarian vocabulary of some 1,500 words, is designed for use by non-native speakers . . . is now quite widely recognized across the European Union, and is often referred to by Europeans who use English in their everyday interactions."

Globish isn't so much a language, though obviously it derives from one, as a means of easing communication in a globalized world. It is recognizable as a form of English, but it isn't English as you and I speak and write it, whether we're American or Canadian or British. It is "becoming a global phenomenon with a fierce, inner multinational dynamic, an emerging lingua franca described by the anthropologist Benedict Anderson as 'a kind of global-hegemonic post-clerical Latin.' " McCrum writes:

"English today embodies a paradox. To some, it seems to carry the seeds of its own decay. In the heartlands of the mother tongue, there are numerous anxieties about its future: in the United States, language conservatives agonize about the Hispanic threat to American English. But simultaneously, and more stealthily -- almost unnoticed, in fact -- the real challenge to the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible comes less from alien speech than from the ceaseless amendments made to English in a myriad daily transactions across the known world. Here, global English, floating free from its troubled British and American past, has begun to take on a life of its own. It will be one of the predictions of this book that the twenty-first century expression of British and American English -- the world's English -- is about to make its own declaration of independence from the linguistic past, in both grammar and vocabulary."

McCrum is a well-regarded British journalist, associate editor of the Sunday newspaper the Observer and author or co-author of several previous books, among them an engaging biography of P.G. Wodehouse. Another is "The Story of English," written with Robert MacNeil and William Cran, done in conjunction with a television series of the same title. I have neither read nor seen either of these, but it's obvious from the first four of the five sections of "Globish" that McCrum has relied heavily on research for the earlier book in writing this one, for these sections essentially add up to a condensed history of the evolution of English, with particular emphasis on its remarkable capacity to absorb words and usages from other languages as well as to welcome new coinages from speakers of English (and American English) themselves.

This is a comment, not a criticism. The history of English is inherently fascinating, and McCrum tells the story well. Perhaps due in part to his having an American wife (the estimable Sarah Lyall of the New York Times), he declines to strike the patronizing attitude toward American English that so many of his fellow Brits reflexively pose. Certainly it is true that on this side of the Atlantic we've done considerable harm to the King's English, especially in advertising and the media, but more important it is true, as McCrum says, that beginning with colonization in the early 17th century "America . . . massively [extended] the range and expression of English."

By the time the Pilgrims and other settlers reached these shores, English was a well-established language with a small but extraordinary literature. In 1599 alone, Shakespeare completed "Henry V," wrote "As You Like It" and "Julius Caesar" and "began a first draft of 'Hamlet' "; and in 1611, four years after "pioneers sailed into Chesapeake Bay," the monumental King James Bible appeared. The language in which these great works were written had evolved from Saxon and Norse influences, more than a touch of French and of course Latin. While French was the language of diplomacy, Latin was the language of the church and the establishment. English evolved as the people's language: "It is part of the enduring appeal of the world's English that its origins are associated with the history of the many not the few, and with the street not the court or cloister."

A crucial figure in the evolution of this language was William Caxton, an "engaging hustler" who while in Europe in the late 15th century discovered the new craft of printing and brought it to England, where "he became the first editor-publisher, printing the works of Chaucer . . . and Thomas Malory's 'Morte d'Arthur.' " McCrum continues: "Confronted by the unruly nature of late-fifteenth-century English, Caxton achieved the essential simplification in a manner that was both practical and pragmatic. . . . 'Lighte,' or easy, the English of William Caxton is a self-confident means of expression with international, even global, potential." He gave respectability to the English vernacular by putting it into print and "fixed the language on the printed page before its writers and teachers had fully reconciled the divergences between the written and the spoken."

That is the language the settlers brought to America, where it fell under the influence of the likes of Thomas Paine ("one of the founding fathers of the world's English"), Thomas Jefferson (whose "words would give revolutionary movements from Paris to Havana an English-language blueprint for populist revolt"), Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. Although McCrum refers only to the latter as a son of the frontier "who shared its ethos, its beliefs, even its humour -- democratic, individualistic, egalitarian" -- that is equally true of Lincoln, who spoke and wrote a language that was distinctly, undeniably American. Later, in the 20th century, other, more ambiguous influences arose in America:

"The worldwide promotion of automobiles, movies and money now made the American language intrinsic to the global economy as never before. . . . This American century is the precursor to the Globish millennium. It was a two-stage process. First, there was the worldwide development of a common print culture, in which American language and cultural values became widely available. Secondly, the IT revolution and its infinity of data globalized these resources while at the same time splicing them with a multiplicity of competing traditions."

Reasonably enough, McCrum dates the beginning of the "new global culture" to 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, after which emerged "the worldwide cultural revolution that would become Globish . . . the worldwide dialect of the third millennium." Nowhere is it more in evidence than in India: "This is not the Indian English of 'Hobson-Jobson' or the standardized American and British English of the universities, but the emerging supranational lingua franca that enables a call center in Bangalore to answer impossible queries, or sell new products, as far afield" as the United States or England. Of course, many in those countries who have dealt with such call centers would question the clarity of the exchange, but it is indeed Globish at work. As another example, McCrum cites "McMafia," the title of a book by Misha Glenny:

"Glenny's catchy title, which is almost a brand name, has required no translation. It has become, in the author's words 'widely accepted shorthand for international organized crime.' But where does it derive its inspiration? From a multi-national fast-food chain of Scots-American origin (McDonald's), married to a Sicilian slang word for a secret criminal society. Contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive, Globish will always display this capacity to animate inert linguistic fragments into striking new configurations, like iron filings around a magnet."

That of course is and always has been true of English itself, as protean a language as the world ever has known. The difference is that linguistic evolution now is on a global stage, with little or no reference to Anglo-American tradition. Some will find it ironic, or distasteful, that this form of English is becoming the world's language at the very moment that it's under attack from various foreign languages in the two countries where it is rooted, but this is the new world. Live with it.

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