Globish: the end of Babel? A book review

Published in The Myanmar Times on 8 October 2012

Lost in translation
Lost in translation

“English is like a virus that has spread round the world,” writes Robert McCrum in Globish: How English Became the World’s Language. He deftly charts the history of the world’s English, from its humble beginnings to becoming the “worldwide dialect of the third millennium”. Back in 1066, when William the Conqueror was crowned following the Battle of Hastings, “English became the mother tongue of an oppressed people” under French rule. Almost three centuries passed before British parliament began to conduct its affairs in English.

Up until the 1600s, regional variation was strong, to the point of often being unintelligible. McCrum illustrates this with an incident now difficult to comprehend, with English now being used in some form by a third of the world’s population.

An Englishman rowed ashore and asked for a meal of “‘mete and specially egges” at an inn close to London, but was “so misunderstood that the innkeeper’s wife declared that she did not speak French”. The misunderstanding was resolved when another diner requested “eyren” on his behalf.

The anecdote was recorded by the person responsible for the “apparently irrational spelling conventions” that afflict English. William Caxton, a 15th century translator and publisher, decided to modernise the vernacular after being encountering “so many strange terms” while reading over his attempt to create an English version of a Latin epic previously translated into French.

Caxton scoured an old book in vain: “It was more like Dutch than English.” Fearing criticism of his abilities, he attempted to create a system the common man could understand, but ultimately gave us oddities such as “through” and “night”.

As the owner of one of the earliest printing presses, Caxton then “fixed the language onto the printed page before its writers and teachers had fully reconciled the divergences between the written and spoken”. McCrum believes Caxton himself would be horrified to learn his conventions stuck.

Nevertheless, Caxton’s efforts to diminish ambiguities were profoundly influential. McCrum writes: “Almost everything from the 1600s in English is comprehensible to modern eyes.” Globish brims with delectable literary and cultural facts, such as the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind being a quote from a poem by Alexander Pope, published in 1717.

Interestingly, McCrum argues, “it is precisely the imperfections of English that are part of its enduring strength”. Its ability to adapt “like mercury, to every new contour” is part of its “indefinable genius”.

He explains that “jazz” originally meant “to speed up,” “jungle” comes from Sanskrit, “safari” from Swahili, “homeboy” from Xhosa and “pundit” from Hindi. This scattering of words into the English lexicon largely came about through invasions, wars, slavery and colonialism.

Although the number of Mandarin speakers outnumbers the global figure for English by more than two to one, Caxton emphasises that approximately 350 million Chinese also speak some kind of English and that by 2020, nearly a third of the world’s population will all be trying to learn English at the same time.

He emphatically dismisses Mandarin as a rival: “It is fashionable to refer to China [as] a giant economic and cultural force. … But the Chinese language … is self-contained and ill-suited to a multicultural role.”

He interviews Kathy Flower, host of a popular BBC English-language program in China, who states: “Until [the authorities] do something about the 60,000 Chinese characters which an educated person is supposed to learn … I don’t think it’s ever going to change places with English.”

Ms Flower explains that for millions of rural Chinese, “even basic education in the mother tongue is a lifetime’s achievement”. McCrum feels confident that Globish “is better equipped to enjoy international influence.”

But what exactly is it?

Globish is a term coined by Jean-Paul Nerriere to describe a form of “decaffeinated English” containing a vocabulary of 1500 words and simplified grammar. McCrum reports that it is widely recognised across the European Union, and handbooks are published in six languages (plus one titled Globish in Globish).

As its title suggests, Globish documents how the English language became “a power in itself”, independent of its American and British roots — a divergent path McCrum entertainingly traces.

He predicts the world’s English is about to make its own “declaration of independence” and will be widely recognised as Globish. Mr Nerriere tells the author: “Globish will limit the influence of [English] dramatically.”

Journalist Ben McIntyre offers a helpful précis of the concept by describing a conversation he overheard between an Indian and a Spaniard in an airport: “The language they spoke was a highly simplified form of English, without grammar or structure, but perfectly comprehensible, to them and to me.”

McCrum’s exact description of Globish is that it is “neutral and intelligible”.

However, there are occasions when the author seemingly fails to present his argument in a neutral tone, which is the book’s most significant weakness.

Of the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, a founding father of the world’s English, McCrum observes rather strangely: “Crucially, he was an English thinker.”

In the preamble to a witty remark by journalist Nuri Vittachi, McCrum writes of “the lingua franca of the Far East”, which, as The Economist pointed out, is an antiquated, offensive and misleading geographical term: “The ‘Far East’, as East Asia used to be called, is indeed far away from Europe but quite nearby for people who live there.”

Another troubling aspect is the credence given to a split between “native” and “non-native” English speakers, particularly given its context of advancing a global language.

McCrum believes Globish will enfranchise “new people” because it is “designed for use by non-native speakers”.

However, if the advantage of Globish is clear communication in an international setting, surely so-called native speakers should strive to jettison localisms that hinder such an exchange.

Academic Kanavillil Rajagopalan rejects the “native speaker” concept (which also sounds inherently old-fashioned) because it reflects the “notoriously unequal power distribution in the use of the English language worldwide”.

Furthermore, academic Ali Fuad Selvi writes in The Non-native Speaker Teacher: “‘Native speakerism’ … frequently results in … employment discrimination.”

But McCrum also quotes Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew: “There is this naive belief … that because the language is English, therefore it is not part of me, so I cannot learn to use it as well as an Englishman. This is utterly wrong.”

Indeed, many a “native speaker” cannot distinguish between “their” and “there”. However, MCrum’s vision of Globish misses the opportunity to debunk the fallacy altogether.

He also confines English native-speakers to the Western world, while acknowledging that “English became the de facto language of what used to be known as the Third World” following decolonisation.

Although he points out that bilingualism in India began in 1835 and that it currently has the world’s third-largest English-language book market, he nevertheless states: “Chinese, Indians, Mexicans and Poles who are ambitious to succeed … will acquire the language skills necessary to achieve their goals.”

According to the global statistics website NationMaster, India has more English speakers — based on “first language or native speaker classifications” — than anywhere outside the US.

Towards the book’s end, McCrum writes that “some may even ask: ‘Is this … the end of Babel?’” Unfortunately, not yet. “The extraordinary process described here may be at least a thousand years old, but it is still in its infancy.”