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Globish

Robert McCrum—one of my favorite UK book critics, due in part to his interest in all things international—has a really interesting looking book coming out this May. Entitled Globish, it will be available in the UK from Penguin, and from W.W. Norton in the U.S. (although god help me to find this on the Norton website), and focuses on “How the English Language Became the World’s Language.”

When it comes to all things literary, this sort of idea—that English takes over, almost like a virus—creeps me out. But McCrum has a very interesting post at The Guardian about his book and its core ideas:

What is Globish? For me, it’s not just linguistic, and it all began in 2005. In September that year, Jyllands Posten (the Jutland Post), a culturally influential Danish newspaper, published a sequence of satirical cartoons poking fun at the prophet Muhammad, which provoked riots in which 139 people died. Possibly the most bizarre response to the affair, which surfaced again in January 2010 with an assault on the home of the artist, Kurt Westergaard, was a protest by Muslim fundamentalists outside the Danish embassy in London. Chanting in English, the protesters carried placards with slogans such as “Vikings Beware!”, “Butcher Those Who Mock Islam”, “Freedom of Expression Go to Hell” and (my favourite) “Down with Free Speech”.

This collision of the Koran with Monty Python, or perhaps of the OED with the Islamic Jihad, was the moment at which I began to reflect on the dramatic shift in global self-expression (I didn’t have a word for it then) that was now asserting itself in this crisis, through a world united by the internet. What more surreal – and telling – commentary on the anglicisation of the modern world could there be than a demonstration by devout Muslims, in London, exploiting an old English freedom, and expressing it in the English language, to demand the curbing of the libertarian tradition that actually legitimised their protest?

Then, in 2007, still puzzling over the phenomenon of British and American English as an evolving lingua franca, I came across an article in the International Herald Tribune about French-speaking retired IBM executive Jean-Paul Nerriere, who not only described English and its international deployment as “the worldwide dialect of the third millennium” but also gave it a name.

In a posting in Japan in the 1990s, Nerriere made an important observation. He noticed that, in meetings, non-native English speakers were communicating far more successfully with their Korean and Japanese clients than British or US executives, for whom English was the mother tongue. Standard English was all very well for Anglophone societies, but out there in the wider world, a non-native “decaffeinated English”, declared Nerriere, was becoming the new global phenomenon. In a moment of inspiration, he christened it “Globish”. [. . .]

So here’s the sales pitch. Globish is not about the making of a 1500-word vocabulary, but about the way in which Indians, Chinese and many Africans are now turning to English as a liberating and modernising phenomenon (last year, the government of francophone Rwanda not only applied to join the British Commonwealth but also declared English to be the official language of the country).

At the same time, as well as exploring a decisive new chapter in international communications, Globish begins to identify the viral nature of this lingua franca, the qualities of the English language and its culture that make it so contagious, adaptable, populist and even subversive. It describes a process that echoes contemporary experience: a socio-cultural dynamic that is bottom-up, not top-down. That’s the guiding intuition of Globish, and I’m hoping that my account of it in 2010 will strike a chord with you.

It’s true that in my travels I benefit from the so-called “rise of Globish,” since I can now communicate—in rudimentary terms at times, but still—with people wherever I go. At the same time, I have some old-school fears about how this could influence the way we think: about each other, about language, about art. Very interested to see what McCrum has to say about all this. . . .



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