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Robert McCrum, the Literary Editor of the London Sunday newspaper, The Observer, is best known in linguistic circles as co-author of the 1986 book The Story of English, based on the television series of the same name.

The cover of Robert McCrum' book 'Globish'

In this new work he argues that English has established itself as a medium of international communication far beyond those who claim it as a first language. It has turned into a global lingua franca, Globish (global + English). The term was created by a French former IBM executive and amateur linguist, Jean-Paul Nerrière, who in 2004 published a book with the title Parlez Globish. This was based on his experience 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. They were speaking a stripped-down, simplified version of English, shorn of the idiom, figures of speech and colloquialisms that can make native speakers hard to understand. In his book, he codified Globish as a streamlined English of 1,500 words. It’s not quite the Basic English of Ogden and Richards but similar in purpose and size and indeed partly drawn from it, as his vocabulary is to a large extent taken from the Simplified English of the Voice of America broadcasts that was in turn taken from Basic English. Grammar is simplified and circumlocutions make up for the limited vocabulary (nephew becomes “son of your brother”, and chat is “speak casually to each other”).

Mr McCrum features Globish in the introduction and in the final sections. In between, he recapitulates much of the material from The Story of English to explain how the language travelled from its earliest beginnings as the native tongue of a Germanic tribe to its current international status. It is a fascinating cultural, social and political story, as well told as you would expect, but for many readers it will be well-trodden ground. There is little that’s directly concerned with the linguistic evolution of English, though the Great Vowel Shift makes a brief appearance. He treats the story as one of continuing and inevitable progress, when the truth is that — as so often in human affairs — the language has succeeded through a series of accidents. The crucial such accident in modern times has been the decline of the British Empire, coinciding with the rise of American domination, a rare case in which a transfer of power and influence involved nations which spoke the same language.

It was confusing to discover that, despite comments in interviews and a description of Jean-Paul Nerrière’s work in the introduction, Robert McCrum doesn’t mean by Globish in this book what Nerrière does — a limited auxiliary language with no native speakers. For McCrum, Globish is international English, a rich fully-featured language in which books, plays and films can be written, in which G8 leaders can hold press conferences and Bangalore call centre workers can discuss the problems of American computer users. For him, Globish is a “global means of communication that is irrepressibly contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive.” It is, he says, “a contemporary phenomenon of extraordinary range and complexity”, in which for “the first time in the history of the planet the whole world can transmit and receive the same language”.

There are several errors in etymology that are worrying in a work about language: honkie (as he spells it, though it’s more usually honky), a disparaging way for black Americans to refer to whites, isn’t from a Wolof word for pink but comes from hunky for an immigrant from Central Europe, originally a Hungarian; jazz hadn’t become part of the mainstream of American culture as early as the start of the First World War; the origin of kangaroo is no longer “obscure and disputed” but, following the work of John Haviland in 1972, is known to be from the Australian aborigine language Guugu Yimithirr; jamboree wasn’t a new word in 1897 that had been “imported from some imperial outpost, no one knows quite where” but had been US slang for a noisy revel from the 1860s; Warren Harding didn’t put normalcy into the American lexicon, as it had been there from the 1850s; CD, for “Compact Disc”, wasn’t coined in Japan but by Philips in the Netherlands.

It’s a wide-ranging — if etymologically flawed — work, which will be of interest to readers coming fresh to the history of the way the English language has developed.

[Robert McCrum; Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language; Published in the UK by Viking (ISBN 978-0-670-91640-5), in the US by W W Norton & Company (ISBN 978-0-393-06255-7), and in Canada by Doubleday Canada (ISBN 978-0-385-66375-5); hardback, pp310, including index; publisher’s UK price £20.00. Also available as an audiobook.]

Page created 3 Jul. 2010

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