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"Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language" by Robert McCrum     Print Email
Reviewed by Michael Mosettig

The Global Lingua Franca is Globish, Which is NOT English -- And Never Will Be

Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language

By Robert McCrum.

W.W. Norton & Co, 352 pages.

Reviewed by Michael Mosettig

When you Google for the source of the oft-quoted aphorism that "English is the easiest language to speak badly," the answer quickly pops up: George Bernard Shaw. This lead sentence of mine incarnates the theme of this book on the spread of English as the world's default language. In my sentence, a corporate name, Google, becomes one of the most widely used verbs in the lexicon. And that particular corporation is the symbol of the exploding worldwide web and communications technology that expresses itself in English.

Shaw's point says in a witty way what author Robert Crum cites so often as the basic reasons for the growth of English: It's a language developed from the ground up; relatively easy to understand and to make oneself understood. Above all, it is adaptable and flexible.

McCrum goes beyond the explanations of British imperium followed by American hegemony (political, economic, cultural) to explain the still-spreading popularity of English in an increasingly multi-polar world. Globish is not just standard British or American English. It is a kind of international English with a basic vocabulary of 1,500 words that manifests itself in a variety of off-shoots including Spanglish, Chinglish, Konglish (South Korea), Singlish (Singapore), Manglish (Malaya) – not to mention franglais, the perennially controversial (in France) drift from the stiffer confines of correct French usage as mandated by the 40-member French Academy. This stricter approach to defining words by academics’ purity about usage, instead of the more open English approach of letting definitions emerge from usage, makes it harder for French to catch on as a “globalistic” language.

The author also makes clear that no matter how far Globish reaches, it will not succeed in reaching the utopian ambition of Babal, a city of a single language. Nor will it follow the fate of the first global language, Latin, and dissolve into national tongues. Instead, Globish (a term coined by a French amateur linguist Jean-Paul Nerriere) becomes the language for non-native English speakers most readily to communicate with each other, as any business person or diplomat or casual traveler sees in daily conversations among Asians and Europeans of different nationalities. Nerriere told McCrum that in his (Nerriere’s) opinion the greatest impact of Globish will be to “limit the influence of the actual English language dramatically.” People won’t need to learn English if they can get by with Globish.

This may or may not prove correct, and McCrum likely flinches at this narrowing of Globish, since many students will need more than an international pidgin English to function. And elsewhere McCrum has argued that Globish is likely successor to both American and British English.

Nowhere is this trend toward a universal form of English more pronounced than in Brussels, with its small armies of interpreters working in more than 20 languages for the European Union institutions. While they are officially tri-lingual in French, German and English, the lingua franca has become the latter. That tilt became decisive with the expansion to Central Europe. "The...enlargement of the European Community in 2005 was a triumph for the European ideal, but it would also turn out to be a surprising victory for a language that remained contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive," McCrum writes.

McCrum, a British journalist and co-author of “The Story of English” with broadcaster and writer Robert MacNeil (full disclosure here, he was my previous boss), comes back to this point frequently as he describes the development of the language woven in a rollicking romp through the history of early England. For example, he narrates this tale in terms of critical moments such as Samuel Johnson's development of a dictionary in 1755, English – which he describes as a decisive triumph over French. "In France, the process of writing a national dictionary (by a committee of 40 scholars) codified, solidified and ultimately fossilized the language. For English, the dictionary process achieved the exact opposite: it gave expression to its contagious adaptability, catchy populism and innate subversiveness. French might remain the language of international relations, but its potential as a world language would remain circumscribed by custom, temperament and philosophical preference."

McCrum also devotes several chapters to the development of the American language and especially, in this Obama era, the influence of Africans and Caribbeans.

Now, as McCrum notes, Globish is a universal language that lends itself to what one might call quickicisms such as the mysterious “o.k.” and the new texting shorthand of "lol" (for laughing out loud) and "gr8"(for great). This ease of adoption is manifest in a book published in dozens of nations but whose title (“McMafia”) required no translation. Globish is ever coining new words and widely-recognizable brand names such as Wikipedia (“wiki” is Hawaiian for quick and “pedia” from the classical Greek for education).

Globish is at once far removed from Shakespeare, the King James version of the Bible, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, but, McCrum insists, they are all (including Globish) bound together across centuries and oceans in a brash spirit of innovation and popular enthusiasm.

Michael D. Mosettig is Foreign Affairs & Defense Editor of the PBS NewsHour.