Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Robert McCrum’s Globish

In Robert McCrum’s book Globish, he discusses the history and meaning of English, and its relevance today. This is a book that feels longer than it actually is because it covers a lot of ground, looking at history (slavery in America, the Seven Years War, etc), current events and situations (India’s Silicone Valley, for example), and important people (Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, V.S. Naipaul, Barack Obama, etc), and the connections to language. It goes back and forth in time and sometimes the book feels too detailed. Despite that, it shows the history of English and makes predictions about where it is going.

As McCrum explains, “‘Globalization’ is a word that first slipped into its current usage during the 1960s; and the globalization of English, and English literature, law, money and values, is the cultural revolution of my generation, before and after the ‘credit crunch’. Combined with the biggest IT innovations since Gutenberg, it continues to inspire the most comprehensive transformation of our society in five hundred, even a thousand years.” (3)

He explores England and the development of the English language from the Normans and old English (for example, “The cultural revolution of Christianity both enriched Old English with scores of new words (apostle, pope, angel, psalter) and, just as importantly, also introduced the capacity to articulate abstract thought.” (26)) through medieval and Renaissance periods (Shakespeare plays a starring role, of course), up to modern times, with stops along the way in creole, black English, Indian English, texting, the influence of cyberspace, and more. He even includes some discussion of translation, particular in you regard to Alfred, King of Wessex during the ninth century, and of course in terms of the bible.

Today, he points out, “global English, floating free from its troubled British and American past, has begun to take on a life of its own…the twenty-first 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.” (6)

It’s worth quoting one of McCrum’s final paragraphs in full, as it sums up his thoughts about where English is going: “The enemies of English culture will criticize its guile and greed, but the outcome is beyond question. In the first decade of the twenty-first century English-speaking people and their culture are more widespread in numbers and influence than any civilization the world has ever seen. Globish, a world dialect, will be less a language and more a means to an end. It will continue to enfranchise millions who lack the benefits of a formal education into a global economy and provide a means of communication that will, for the most part, leave local languages unscathed. Globish might seem to have imperial roots, but it is not imperious. It derives its character from a language that has always been hospitable to change, from the roots up.” (257)

1 comment:

Brian Barker said...

Globish reminds me of another failed project called "Basic English" which failed, because native English speakers could not remember which words not to use :)

So it's time to move forward and adopt a neutral non-national language, taught universally in schools worldwide,in all nations. As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto.

Your readers may be interested in the following video at Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

The study course is now receiving 125,000 hits per month and Esperanto Wikipedia gets 400 000 hits per day. That can't be bad :)