Robert McCrum, Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 331 pp., $26.95.
[amazon 0393062554 full] FEW SUBJECTS engender such passionate argument and virulent quibbling as the English language. Its use and misuse have been the cause of beheadings, burnings at the stake, and innumerable bad report cards and tongue lashings over the past thousand years or so. One imagines that all people must feel strongly about their mother tongue, yet we speakers and writers of this glorious polyglot linguistic mess appear to have exceeded all others in the amount of praise we accord to our particular system of communication, and the abuse we heap upon those who we feel employ it poorly.
There are varying estimates as to how many people in the world speak English (anywhere from 700 million to guesses that there are over 2 billion), and yet unless there is some agreement as to what exactly constitutes knowing a language (which seems unlikely), it will remain impossible to get a sense of how pernicious our language is.
But though the exact numbers may be disputed, what cannot be denied is that the English language, like a metastasizing linguistic tumor, has been remarkably successful in its growth. There have been any number of movements to ban, or at least to limit, its spread. Perhaps the most celebrated example is that of the Académie Française, the group in France charged with the unenviable task of keeping the Gallic language pure and free from such deleterious terms as le big mac. One can hardly fault these immortals in their desire to prevent the distortion of their oh-so-venerable language, but their position appears rather risible when they attempt to prevent the use of English words that come originally from French—as was the case when it was recommended that the business term le cash-flow be banned (cash likely comes to English from the Middle French casse, meaning “money box”).
Now, the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF), an organization in Quebec that was formed in 1961 with the objective of preserving its titular language, has been somewhat more effective in pursuing its Gallic goals. Indeed, the OQLF has served as a vigilant guardian of French language and culture in northern North America, which usually involves fining shop owners for not posting signs in French, or forcing businesses that sell to Quebecois to maintain an entirely separate French web site.
The English-language-as-infection is an idea held by so many it is hard to know where to stop recounting the tales of its outraged linguistic victims. A recent story in the London Daily Telegraph describes the efforts of Huang Youyi, the Chinese chairman of the International Federation of Translators, to ban the use of English words. Youyi even introduced a proposal at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference demanding that publications avoid using English names for people, places and companies—bizarre (and unmanageable), to say the least.
Besides our mother tongue, it is unlikely that any language has ever been the subject of so many encomiums, exhortations, broadsides and legislation. No other language has ever had so much ink, if not blood, spilled on its behalf. The Moldovans and the Romanians might debate whether the former is a dialect of the latter, or if they are in fact two distinct languages, but the truth of the matter is that very few people (aside from the Moldovans and Romanians) care much either way. And in any event, neither one of these languages is in great danger of spreading so rapidly as to change the rest of the world’s feelings about it. This is not the case with English.
ROBERT MCCRUM’S Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language is an attempt to explain how the world came to find itself overrun by our nouns, verbs and adjectives. His success in the endeavor is decidedly mixed.
The problems begin with the title. “Globish” is in fact the name of a form of simplified English “created” (I use this term very loosely) by a Frenchman named Jean-Paul Nerrière. And since McCrum’s offering is also titled Globish, and since he spends a good deal of the beginning of the book talking about Nerrière’s language brainchild, it seems reasonable for the reader to imagine that McCrum intends his work to be about this very subject. Except that he introduces us to Nerrière, tells us something about Nerrière’s version of Globish, and then proceeds to more or less stop talking about them both for the rest of the book. It is almost as if Nerrière and his system of language are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Globish. They serve as a plot device, and are then sent offstage for the rest of the affair.
One of the great drawbacks to some academic writing (particularly that of students) is the author’s habit of taking what always feels like an ungodly amount of time to define the terms that he will be using. Yet for all its tedium, this practice can come in handy—or perhaps it is just that the absence of definitions can be notable. In McCrum’s case, we are faced with the latter problématique (oh, the Gauls would be so pleased). I finished the book with very little idea of what Globish is.
At one point, McCrum, an associate editor at The Observer, describes the concept as “a metaphor for the novelty of global English culture today.” Yet Globish is also described in the ending pages as both “the dialect of Generation Y” and as “the worldwide dialect of the third millennium.” For McCrum, Globish also appears to have great fluidity of meaning—even applying itself to Barack Obama’s appeal (“contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive—in a word, ‘globish’”).
So what on earth is it? According to Nerrière’s web site (www.Globish.com) it is a system of language that allows you to “communicate in English, using only 1500 words,” employing a “simple, but standard grammatical structure” that will ostensibly “provide a tool for leading a conversation in business or as a tourist, anywhere in the world.”
On the Globish site, there are, perhaps unsurprisingly, a multitude of opportunities to make purchases. One can buy such items as a Globish baseball cap (in either beige or black) or a copy of Not Quite Shakespeare (“9 short, fun plays in Globish-level English for English conversation classes”). And of course, the means of learning how to speak Globish are also for sale, including either a one-time-fee e-book, or a month-by-month lesson plan for use on your cellular phone or computer.
I noticed that a large number of the words utilized by Nerrière, or whoever put his web site together, are not included in his list of terms that make up Globish’s vocabulary. The site describes this simplified language in a way that decidedly hedges its bets, saying that it “is being noted as perhaps the only possibility for true Global talk.” Perhaps it is, and perhaps Moldovan can make a case for having the same possibility.
THE IDEA of bringing about greater peace, understanding and maybe even improved trade relations through the creation of a universal language is not a new idea. It was particularly popular in the nineteenth century, which witnessed the birth of world languages like Volapük, devised by a German priest who believed that God had commanded him to create a means of international communication. Alas, the heavenly Father had his own ideas, and Volapük was largely supplanted by Esperanto, yet another global tongue. The twentieth century, too, has seen its share of these inorganic creations, with entries such as Klingon, inspired by the interstellar (and thoroughly international) adventurers of Star Trek, which has its own core group of adherents who speak and write in it.
Volapük, Esperanto and Klingon are all constructed languages, and as such, lack what is perhaps the most important characteristic of Globish—it is at least in some way a natural language. But its organic qualities do not in and of themselves make it revolutionary.
Even the idea that Globish is not a new idea is itself not a new idea; people have been pointing that out ever since it was proclaimed a language. Mark Liberman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the founders of the linguistics blog Language Log, has written about the concept’s long intellectual history on several occasions. He points out that polymath Charles Kay Ogden also talked about English’s prospects as a world tongue—only he did it over eighty years ago.
In the 1920s, Ogden, along with I. A. Richards, a fellow scholar at the University of Cambridge, came up with the idea, vocabulary and structure of a simplified form of our language, which came to be known as Basic English. Within an eighteen-week span during the Second World War, Richards was able to teach Chinese sailors enough Basic that they could run a battleship commanded by an English speaker. Although Basic has had some lasting influence (it served as the basis for Simplified English, a system created and used by the European aerospace industry in the 1980s), it has fallen far short of uniting the world.Pullquote: What cannot be denied is that the English language, like a metastasizing tumor, has been remarkably successful in its growth.Essay Types: Book Review