If you were to read the title, jacket blurb or publicity material for Robert McCrum’s new book you could be excused for assuming that it dealt largely with a modern phenomenon. ‘Globish’ or Global English is, after all, a relatively modish expression. You may be surprised, then, that McCrum starts his enjoyable Globish story more than two thousand years ago in the tar pits of Denmark.
It takes McCrum roughly 200 pages of the 268-page book to reach the postcolonial ‘Globish’ speaking world of the recent past. The bulk of this material – the history of the English language – has been well covered elsewhere, including a number of times by McCrum himself. Nonetheless, Globish offers a lively, entertaining account at a brisk pace and on this basis alone is a worthy addition to the fold. McCrum offers all the usual elements, from the Norman Conquest to the Gettysburg Address, with humour and a journalistic gift for anecdote. But it was always through the prism of ‘Globish’ that this book was going to offer something different.
The concept behind the word ‘Globish’ is not just that English is spoken globally, but rather that a new language – albeit one based on English – has been adopted around the world. If Spanglish is a Spanish-influenced dialect of English spoken in the Americas, and Tanglish is a Tamil-influenced dialect spoken in Southern India, then Globish is a globally influenced dialect spoken just about everywhere. If you have ever taken a taxi in Cairo or ordered from a menu in Vietnam then you have probably spoken some form of Globish. An important element of this new language is that it is not just a means of communication between English speakers and non-English speakers. Globish has arisen as the language of choice when two non-English speakers from different language backgrounds get together. A Chinese tourist taking a taxi in Cairo will probably be speaking Globish too.
‘Globish’, like so many words that have been co-opted by English, is originally French. The expression was coined by Jean-Paul Nerriére, a former IMB executive who observed that non-native English speakers often communicated better with non-native English speaking clients than a native English speaker was able. Nerriére decided this was because the non-native speakers were both speaking Globish, which he called ‘the worldwide dialect of the third millennium’. Like any pidgin, essential elements of Globish include a streamlined vocabulary, simplified grammar and the occasional resort to waving one’s hands around. There are currently at least two French/Globish handbooks in publication.
A slight problem with McCrum’s analysis is that he tends to confuse English and Globish. And it is certainly a difficult line to draw. For example, anecdotes about the UN or international big business increasingly relying on English for communication are clearly relevant, but at the same time do not quite support the idea of a new international tongue. If big business is dealing in true English, then surely this is a sign that Globish is inadequate for such complicated transactions?
Globish is a cracking account of the history of the English language and an appealing introduction to the concept of global English – but don’t expect it to be the definitive account of either subject. As McCrum demonstrates, the English language is always in flux, and its story is far from over.
Rafiq Copeland is an itinerant television researcher.