‘Throw away your dictionaries!’ is the battle cry as a simplified global hybrid of English conquers cultures and continents. In this extract from his new book, Globish, Robert McCrum tells the story of a linguistic phenomenon – and its links to big money
Globalisation is a word that first slipped into its current usage during the 1960s; and the globalisation of English, and English literature, law, money and values, is the cultural revolution of my generation. Combined with the biggest IT innovations since Gutenberg, it continues to inspire the most comprehensive transformation of our society in 500, even 1,000, years. This is a story I have followed, and contributed to, in a modest way, ever since I wrote the BBC and PBS television series The Story of English, with William Cran and Robert MacNeil, in the early 1980s. When Bill Gates was still an obscure Seattle software nerd, and the latest cool invention to transform international telephone lines was the fax, we believed we were providing a snapshot of the English language at the peak of its power and influence, a reflection of the Anglo-American hegemony. Naturally, we saw our efforts as ephemeral. Language and culture, we knew, are in flux. Any attempts to pin them down would be antiquarianism at best, doomed at worst. Besides, some of the experts we talked to believed that English, like Latin before it, was already showing signs of breaking up into mutually unintelligible variants. The Story of English might turn out to be a last hurrah.
We were, of course, dead wrong. The global power and influence of Anglo-American language and culture in the broadest sense were about to hit another new high. When the cold war ended, after the Berlin Wall came down, and once the internet took off in the 1990s, there was an astonishing new landscape to explore and describe. Sometimes during these years the spread of Anglo-American culture seemed like the fulfilment of the ambition expressed by America’s founding fathers to play a role “among the Powers of the Earth” derived, as they put it, from “the Laws of Nature”. The world had become a planet composed of some 193 countries, all enjoying a greater or lesser familiarity with English and Englishness. Was this the end of Babel?
A hundred years ago, one description of this phenomenon might have been “Anglo- or America-philia”, but that will not wash today. Anglo-American culture has so many contemporary faces. It can conjure up elderly gentlemen of Germanic demeanour in brogues and tweed jackets, or a certain kind of American Wasp taking tea and crumpets in Fortnum & Mason. Or it can be found in the angry banlieues of Paris where, echoing the universal tongues of rap music and football, many of the kids are called “Steeve”, “Marky”, “Britney” or even “Kevin”. Again, it can convey the enthusiasm for English of, for example, DJ Static (aka Mike Lai), a Montreal rapper who came to Canada from Hong Kong as a boy of 11 and learned English by repeating the lyrics of hip-hop songs. Or it can describe the excitement of English-language students in Japan who, in the spring of 2009, were filmed by the BBC solemnly repeating extracts from the speeches of Barack Obama as part of their training.
There is also the demotic energy of English in, for instance, contemporary Los Angeles, which is both the multicultural capital of Hispanic California and simultaneously the headquarters of a global movie business, the American dream factory. Cross the Pacific and the perspective changes again. There, you will find Nury Vittachi, aka “Mister Jam”, a journalist and novelist of Australian descent now based in Hong Kong, who describes the lingua franca of the Far East as “Englasian” – a m ostly English vocabulary set into Chinese and Hindi syntax. “Throw away your dictionaries,” writes Vittachi. “The unwritten language Englasian really is threatening to supplant English as the business language of Asia.” Still others speak of “Panglish”, the global tongue.
At the dawn of a new millennium the phenomenon of English seems more vivid and universal than ever before. Like a Jackson Pollock of language, countless new variants are adding to the amazing Technicolor texture of the overall picture: urban patois like “Jafaikan”; or local Asian hybrids like Konglish (English in South Korea) and Manglish (Malay and English); or contemporary slang like “cheddar”, “phat” and “noob”, for “money”, “wonderful/great” and ‘somebody new/ignorant”. Yet, even at its zenith, this has been a fleeting moment, with a tragic reckoning: the 9/11 attack on the twin towers, the Iraq war and the polarisation of the global community in the “war on terror”. Overnight, the benign sensations of the 1990s were replaced by something much more chill, and menacing. Since 2001 the achievements of what might be seen as the American century have been swiftly obliterated.
During the presidency of George W Bush American language and culture became associated with unilateral and often irrational policies of a wounded superpower, acts of aggression, masquerading as self-defence and motivated by rage, insecurity and fear. In former times this phase might have resulted in a retreat from the dominant language and culture of the moment. But this did not happen – for two main reasons. First, in 2008, after almost a decade of angry chauvinism, American democracy seemed to rediscover its purpose and elected Barack Obama. Secondly, so-called “soft power” has its own trajectory; there was always an important distinction to be drawn between culture and foreign policy. Young Iranians could hate George W Bush but idolise American pop stars, burn the stars and stripes but splash out on American-style jeans and computers.
Moreover, English had developed a supranational momentum that gave it a life independent of its British, and more especially its American, roots. Already multinational in expression, English was becoming a global phenomenon with a fierce, inner multinational dynamic, an emerging lingua franca described by the historian Benedict Anderson as “a kind of global-hegemonic post-clerical Latin”.
Today there is almost no limit to the scope of this subject. The world’s varieties of English range from the “crazy English” taught to the Chinese-speaking officials of the Beijing Olympics, to the “voice and accent” manuals issued by Infosys and Microsoft at their Bangalore headquarters. Thus, English today embodies a paradox. To some, it seems to carry the seeds of its own decay. In the heartlands of the mother tongue, there are numerous anxieties about its future: in the United States, language conservatives agonise about the Hispanic threat to American English. But simultaneously, and more stealthily – almost unnoticed, in fact – the real challenge to the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible comes less from alien speech than from the ceaseless amendments made to English in a myriad daily transactions across the known world. Here, global English, floating free from its troubled British and American past, has begun to take on a life of its own. My prediction is that the 21st-century expression of British and American English – the world’s English – is about to make its own declaration of independence from the linguistic past, in both syntax and vocabulary.
In The Prodigal Tongue, “dispatches from the future of English”, Mark Abley has a telling passage about the “Latvians and Macedonians, Indonesians and Peruvians, Israelis and Egyptians” who sign up for the official online forum of the rock group Coldplay. To these fans, writes Abley, it doesn’t matter that the band consists of three Englishmen and a Scot singing in a tongue that was once confined to part of an island off Europe’s coast. Now, wherever on the planet these fans happen to live, music connects them. So does language. As long as they’re willing to grope for words in the accelerating global language that Coldplay speaks, the forum gives all its members a chance to speak.
This is the interactive, ever-changing world of global English. At the beginning of the 21st century, rarely has a language and its culture enjoyed such an opportunity to represent the world. In crude numbers alone, English is used, in some form, by approximately 4 billion people, one-third of the planet, and outnumbered only by the speakers of Chinese, approximately 350 million of whom also speak some kind of English.
This has many expressions. In an offshoot of “crazy English”, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was pirated in several Chinese versions, blending storylines lifted from Tolkien and kung-fu epics, with titles like Harry Potter and the Chinese Empire, and Harry Potter and Leopard Walk up to Dragon. At the same time, JK Rowling’s triumphant coda to her series would also be launched, in English, from Reykjavik to Quito. This is what happened on the night of 21 July 2007 when a global fraternity of juvenile wizards mobbed bookstore checkouts across the world, with an immediate sale (3.5 million copies in the first week) of the English-language edition. In Germany, the Guardian reported, “muggle”, “quidditch” and “house elf” were becoming “part of German schoolchildren’s vocabulary”.
The world’s appetite for English language and culture means that the Royal Shakespeare Company will tour its “Complete Shakespeare” productions worldwide, Manchester United will plan its matches to suit Japanese television schedules and the House of Lords will rule on the use of torture in the “war on terror” using arguments whose roots lie in the debates surrounding Magna Carta. The same pressures mean that, in 2006–07, about 80% of the world’s home pages on the world wide web were “in some kind of English”, compared to German (4.5%) and Japanese (3.1%), while Microsoft publishes no fewer than 18 versions of its “English language” spellcheckers.
The India of Hobson-Jobson has also found a new global audience. A film such as Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding is typical of the world’s new English culture. The Indian bridegroom has a job in Houston. The wedding guests jet in from Melbourne and Dubai and speak in a mishmash of English and Hindi. Writing in the Sunday Times, Dominic Rushe noted that Bollywood English is “hard to reproduce in print, but feels something like this: “Yudhamanyus ca vikranta uttanaujas ca viryanavan: he lives life in the fast lane.” Every English-speaking visitor to India watches with fascination the facility with which contemporary Indians switch from Hindi or Gujarati into English, and then back into a mother tongue. In 2009, the film Slumdog Millionaire took this a stage further. Simon Beaufoy’s script, a potpourri of languages, adapted from an Indian novel, was shot in Mumbai, with a British and Indian cast, by Scottish director Danny Boyle, but launched worldwide with an eye on Hollywood’s Oscars, where it eventually cleaned up.
India illustrates the interplay of British colonialism and a booming multinational economy. Take, for instance, the 2006 Man Booker prize. First, the result was broadcast on the BBC World Service from Delhi to Vancouver. The winner was The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, an Indian-born writer who had attended writing classes in New York. So far removed from any English experience, though steeped in its literary tradition, was The Inheritance of Loss that, finally, the British critic John Sutherland was moved to describe Desai’s work as “a globalised novel for a globalised world”. The writer herself is emblematic of the world’s new culture: educated in Britain and America, she wrote her novel in her mother Anita Desai’s house in the foothills of the Himalayas, and boasts on her website of feeling “no alienation or dislocation” in her transmigration between three continents.
The Inheritance of Loss is the literary representation of a contemporary experience. Desai says that her book “tries to capture what it means to live between east and west, and what it means to be an immigrant”; it also explores “what happens when a western element is introduced to a country that is not of the west”. She also asks: “How does the imbalance between these two worlds change a person’s thinking and feeling? How do these changes manifest themselves in a personal sphere over time?” Or, she might have added, in a linguistic and cultural sphere.
By 2010 Britain’s role in the world, no longer colonial, is to participate in the international rendering of English and its culture. Like an elderly relative at a teenage rave, the UK sponsors the consumption of English as a highly desirable social and cultural force, “the worldwide dialect of the third millennium”.
Those are the words of Jean-Paul Nerrière, a French-speaking former IBM executive and amateur linguistic scholar. In 1995, Nerrière, who had noticed 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, formulated the idea of “decaffeinated English” and, in a moment of inspiration, christened it “Globish”. His idea quickly caught on. In The Last Word, his dispatches from the frontline of language change, journalist Ben Macintyre writes: “I was recently waiting for a flight in Delhi, when I overheard a conversation between a Spanish UN peacekeeper and an Indian soldier. The Indian spoke no Spanish; the Spaniard spoke no Punjabi. Yet they understood one another easily. The language they spoke was a highly simplified form of English, without grammar or structure, but perfectly comprehensible, to them and to me. Only now do I realise that they were speaking “Globish”, the newest and most widely spoken language in the world.”
For Nerrière, Globish starts from a utilitarian vocabulary of some 1,500 words, is designed for use by non-native speakers, and is currently popularised in two (French-language) handbooks, Découvrez le Globish and Parlez Globish. As a concept, “Globish” is now quite widely recognised across the European Union, and is often referred to by Europeans who use English in their everyday interactions.
In 2007, having read about Jean-Paul Nerrière in the International Herald Tribune , I interviewed him in Paris. He turned out to be a delightful Frenchman, with quixotic ambitions not only for global fraternity but also for the preservation of the French language. “Globish”, he told me over a steak frites in a little restaurant opposite the Gare du Nord, “will limit the influence of the English language dramatically.” As I returned to London, I reflected that “Globish” was more than just a new word for a dialect or an international communication tool. It was a description of a lingua franca, but with a difference. On further consideration, it was also a metaphor for the novelty of global English culture today.
As we enter the second decade of the new century, we are witnessing, in Globish, a contemporary phenomenon of extraordinary range and complexity, expressing a new world of global interconnections. When I was completing the first draft of my book in October 2008, I would break off from the day’s work to watch the television news. These were momentous hours, as the “credit crunch” swiftly became the “global financial crisis”. Hour after hour, there were reports of falling markets in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Frankfurt, Paris, Milan, London and New York. Across a dozen different time zones, financial journalists in each of these cities filed reports for their national desks, but the language of the crisis was unvaryingly Globish. European finance ministers held urgent press conferences, addressing the world’s media in Globish. The doomed prime minister of Iceland, Geir Haarde, watching his country slide into bankruptcy, stoically maintained an even flow of Globish sentiment to calm the nerves of his people while appealing to an international television audience.
The crisis of Meltdown Monday (and its successive aftershocks) emphasised that Globish is a cultural and media phenomenon, one whose infrastructure is economic as much as cultural. Boom or bust, it is a story of “follow the money”. Globish remains based on trade, advertising and the global market. Traders in Singapore inevitably communicate in local languages at home; internationally they default to Globish. Now the global equation ran as follows: Microsoft plus Dow Jones = Globish. So viral is its ceaseless expression round the world that to separate cause and effect is virtually impossible. With its supranational momentum, above and beyond American and British influence, Globish sustains itself as both chicken and egg. To a world community in economic turmoil, at least it offers a means of sharing remedies and counter-measures.
To be realistic: Globish has become an extraordinary phenomenon, but it has not replaced Babel. Language evolves like the species, slowly. The world, flatter and smaller than ever before, is still distinctive as much for its approximately 5,000 different languages as for its emerging Globish. The big picture is infinitely complex, with native speakers clinging fiercely to their ancient languages. Jacques Chirac,
former president of France, once said that nothing would be more
damaging for humanity than for several thousand languages to be
reduced to one. The Sunday Times
commented that ‘to be born an English-speaker is
to win one of the top prizes in life’s lottery. And this can be said
without a hint of triumphalism, sexism, or racism, without annoying
anybody much except the French.’
Is this anglophone future really secure? And, if so, wWhat might Globish achieve in such an arena? When it comes to the future of any language, the cultural commentator is advised to proceed with caution. The highway of English is littered with the debris of burned-out predictions. I recall, with affection, the former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Robert Burchfield, a distinguished lexicographer who was always a sparkling refutation of Dr Johnson’s celebrated definition. Burchfield was never “a harmless drudge”. In fact, he made the language news. More accurately, he recognised that what was happening to the mother tongue in the late 20th century was unprecedented, and he used his position at Oxford to publicise the fact.
According to Burchfield, English was like Latin. Just as Latin broke up into mutually unintelligible languages like French, Spanish and Italian, so would global English similarly disintegrate into separate, mutually distinctive tongues. To the delight of leader-writers from Sydney to Saskatchewan, he pointed out that, historically speaking, languages have always had a tendency to break up, or to evolve. There were, he argued, some “powerful models of the severance of a language into two or more constituent parts, especially the emergence of the great Germanic languages of western Europe – English, German, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, and so on – from the mutually intelligible dialects of the 5th century. The obvious objection to this model, which his critics were swift to deploy, was the contemporary vigour and interconnectedness of global English. In the age of mass media, the future of world English, said Burchfield’s opponents, would never follow the Latin model. To which he replied that such objections overlooked one vital fact: “English, as the second language of many speakers in countries throughout the world, is no more likely to survive the inevitable political changes of the future than did Latin, once the second language of the governing classes or regions within the Roman Empire.” At the moment when Burchfield made this pronouncement the global reach of English was inextricably bound up with American power, on the Roman model. These were the Reagan years. In this new imperium, the local varieties, for example Asian, Indian and Caribbean English, did seem to illustrate the argument for centrifugal change.
Once the cold war ended, the nature of American power became transformed. Today, with the emergence of Globish, the evolution of the “new Englishes” into separate languages seems increasingly unlikely. The broad river of Globish becomes the beneficiary of these sparkling tributaries. Moreover, the colossal financial underpinning of Globish (many trillions of dollars) must ensure its viability, at least for now.
Culture is about identity. For as long as the peoples of the world wish to express themselves in terms of ideas like “freedom”, “individuality” and “originality”, and for as long as there are generations of the world’s schoolchildren versed in Shakespeare, The Simpsons, the Declaration of Independence and the Bible, Globish will remain the means by which an educated minority of the planet communicates in the quest for a better world.