Tidbits among the Triumphalism

Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language, by Robert McCrum. (New York: Penguin Books, 2010). ISBN 978-0-141-02710-4.

Reviewed by Charles De Wolf


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

Back in the early 1980s, when the weekly magazines here in Japan were publishing stories on the often acrimonious debate concerning the origins of the Japanese language, I remember remarking that a controversy in the British or American tabloids about anything to do with the language(s) of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes was most unlikely. The reporting was, to be sure, marred by Nihonjinron sensationalism and bias, but at least it made linguists like me feel that our endeavors were somehow important.

Then, in 1986, The Story of English appeared, an Emmy-award-winning BBC and PBS television series written by Robert McCrum, together with William Cram and Robert MacNeil. Suddenly, the history of the mother tongue had become fashionable.

In Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language, Robert McCrum notes that, “[at the time] we believed we were providing a snapshot of the English language at the height of its power and influence, a reflection of the Anglo-American hegemony…The Story of English might turn out to be a last hurrah.” The next paragraph begins: “We were, of course, dead wrong.” Globish, even more than the previous work, exemplifies English-language triumphalism.

In a short initial chapter, McCrum takes us on a whirlwind tour of a more than a millennium, from Tacitus’s Germania to William the Conqueror. The linguistic description is necessarily impressionistic. In the next chapter, he describes the downtrodden Saxons under Norman rule, no doubt to dramatize the remarkable reemergence of English by the fifteenth century as the language of the entire realm. By the end of part 1 (Founders), we have come to Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and the founding of the American colonies. Part 2 (Pioneers) takes us from John Adams to Barack Obama, from the War of Independence to the Gold Rush, the Gettysburg Address, and the Civil Rights movement. Although Noah Webster’s dictionary and Mark Twain’s Black English are mentioned along the way, the American language is largely lost in the shuffle.

Part 3 (Popularizers) traces the rise and decline of the British Empire and the impact of Africa and the East on the English language. Again, the historical account, which ought to serve as general background to account for specifically linguistic developments, winds up dominating the story. Part 4 (Modernizers) takes us back to United States and its emergence first as the successor to British Empire, then as the sole superpower. McCrum writes:

It was during this unreal and optimistic hiatus [at the beginning of the post-Cold War era] that the little term coined by Jean-Paul Nerrière in 1995, ‘Globish’—simple, inelegant, and almost universal—first gained currency. Now Globish began to emerge, in the words of the Times, ‘as the language of the present and the future’, the world-wide dialect of the third millennium. (p. 209)

(The term Globish has yet to make its way into the Oxford English Dictionary. Wikipedia defines it as: “…a subset of the English language formalized by Jean-Paul Nerrière. It uses a subset of standard English grammar, and a list of 1500 English words. According to Nerriere it is ‘not a language’ in and of itself, but rather it is the common ground that non-native English speakers adopt in the context of international business.”)

Part 5 (Globalizers) focuses on the distinct roles that China and India are playing in the expansion of Globish. “. . . [I]t is in the heart of Africa that the supranational power of English could be decisive. The continent has the vast, untapped resources of the oil and natural gas that China needs to fuel its growth.” (p. 239) For India, English, “the language of the former colonial masters” is both a unifying force in a country of immense linguistic diversity and an enormously advantageous tool in the international marketplace (p. 245).

In an epilogue (“A Thoroughfare for All Thoughts”), McCrum begins on a cautionary note, but then puts it all in perspective:

As Steven Pinker reminds us in The Language Instinct, we are wise to concede Noam Chomsky’s perception that, aside from mutually unintelligible vocabularies, “Earthlings speak a single language.” Nonetheless, the conspicuous differences between English and some of its rivals, like Russian and Japanese, only serve to illustrate the differences not the similarities. In this situation, the role of Globish in the twenty-first century can never be more than a default position, a language for those who wish to communicate globally, regardless of good times or bad. And yet, what a priceless tool it turns out to be. (p. 256)

Academic linguists and other scholars accustomed to a narrow focus will have no difficulty finding bones to pick with McCrum in this wide-ranging work. Here is one of mine: The propensity of non-linguists to see in a language some sort of inherent cultural and ethnic character may reflect a common romantic impulse, but as I am fond of telling my students: Speakers of languages have DNA; languages do not. McCrum seems to understand rightly the remarkable lack of Celtic influence on the English language—but then goes on to say:

The lyrical spirit of the Celts imbues English speech and literature, from the earliest ballads to the poetry of George Mackay Brown and Seamus Heaney, with a quality unknown to the Saxon mind. Many of the finest writers in English—Swift, Burke, Burns, Scott, Stevenson, Wilde, Shaw, Beckett, Joyce, Dylan Thomas—are of Celtic origin. Their work tempers the plainness of the Anglo-Saxon tradition with wit, plangent melancholy and an indefinable sense of ‘otherness’. The Welsh writer Jan Morris has identified this ‘concept of unspecified yearning’ as peculiar to the Celts as hiraeth. (p. 23)

This is, to use another term from the Celtic world, pure blarney. Firstly, Anglo-Saxon poetry, which is strictly Germanic, is replete with “melancholy” and “otherness.” (C. S. Lewis, who was half-Welsh, knew very well what Morris is talking about, but he called it by its well-known German name: Sehnsucht.) Secondly, “Celtic” is, properly understood, a linguistic and cultural, not a racial, term. Swift was born in Dublin, but his parents were both solidly English. Dylan Thomas never learned Welsh and, indeed, had no use for it. Again, it should go without saying, language and culture are not genetically inherited.

McCrum describes a conversation in Globish between a Spanish UN peacekeeper and an Indian soldier as “a highly simplified form of English, without grammar or structure.” (p. 8) Languages lacking grammar and structure are like non-molecular water; that is, there is no such thing. It’s a matter of elementary linguistics.

Closer to our neck of the woods, McCrum writes:

For centuries Japanese was remote, mysterious and separate. But this special linguistic inheritance does seem to have made Japan proud of its culture, as it did in Britain. Paradoxically, a nation that is assertive in business and commerce is unconfident in language and culture…Ever since Commodore Perry’s appearance off the coast of Tokyo in 1853, and long before Hiroshima, there had occasionally been suggestions from leading Japanese that the country should adopt English, or even French, as the national language. Many older Japanese, Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe, for example, are fluent in French, and well versed in French culture, a hangover from colonial days. (pp. 221-22).

This is all either misleading or just plain wrong. As those of us who live here know, the Japanese are second only to the French in taking loving care of their language. Those on the masochistic margins who have denigrated it are arguably no less enamored of it than the linguistic nationalists who have extravagantly extolled it. The first part of McCrum’s last sentence here is incorrect, and the final phrase is baffling.

If McCrum focuses too much on social history at the expense of linguistic history, he also indulges in political asides that distract from his overall theme. His unabashed enthusiasm for Barack Obama and undisguised distaste for Obama’s predecessor will cause some readers to squirm, particularly now that “hope-and-change” euphoria has noticeably faded.

All in all, however, Globish is a book that anyone in the language endeavor, including Globishly involved SWET members, will find a rewarding read. More than compensating for the annoying distractions are such tidbits as the fact that Anne Boleyn had “goggling, almond eyes” and that George Orwell’s widow agreed to the filming of Animal Farm in exchange for a chance to meet Clark Gable.