Globish, by Robert McCrum, Viking £20 310 pages, FT Bookshop price: £16
The word “Globish” was coined in 1995 by Jean-Paul Nerrière, a former vice-president of marketing at IBM. It denotes the fat-free form of English that seems to be the international dialect of modernity; Nerrière describes it as being “decaffeinated”.
Yet the rise of Globish isn’t a mark of Anglophilia, or even of affection for American popular culture. Rather, it reflects what Robert McCrum, in this crisply readable account, calls the “supra-national momentum” of English as a language of commerce, technology and education.
Globish begins arrestingly, with a series of snapshots of modernity in all its vivid strangeness: young Japanese solemnly repeating Barack Obama’s speeches; Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili exploiting his fluency in English to impose himself on international coverage of the crisis in his country in 2008; and German children, infatuated with Harry Potter, talking about Muggles and quidditch.
McCrum, a publisher turned literary journalist who has previously written a life of PG Wodehouse, started exploring the subject after reading about Nerrière, but has a different notion of what Globish actually is. Nerrière conceives of it as an international auxiliary language – like Esperanto, or the Basic English developed in the 1920s by CK Ogden. In his books about Globish, this reduced version of English has a vocabulary of just 1,500 words. It’s a pragmatic achievement.
For Nerrière, Globish promises to limit the influence of English, by creating an alternative lingua franca. This, he thinks, will make the mastery of English enjoyed by native speakers a less commercially and politically advantageous accomplishment.
McCrum doesn’t pursue this line. He conceives of Globish not as a distinct project to originate an auxiliary language for business and diplomacy, but as a catchy way of evoking the protean character of 21st-century English.
Instead of a monolithic English, there are now lots of Englishes. These allow people to express their cultural identity, yet they also facilitate communication between individuals who are in other respects far apart. The result is “a Jackson Pollock of language, countless new variants … adding to the amazing Technicolor texture of the overall picture”.
McCrum proposes that “the globalisation of English, and English literature, law, money and values, is the cultural revolution of my generation”, and argues that this is nothing less than the greatest social transformation in half a millennium. There follows a lengthy account of how English has achieved its present prominence. He identifies five types of people who have shaped its history: founders (Chaucer, Caxton, Shakespeare), pioneers (chiefly the architects of American independence), popularisers (Dr Johnson, David Livingstone), modernisers (mostly politicians and business leaders) and globalisers (ambitious entrepreneurs in contemporary India and China). It also has something to do with the alchemical power of English itself.
Much of this is familiar, although McCrum covers the ground briskly and intelligently, studding his account with pleasing details – for instance, the Italian politician Romano Prodi liked, during his time at the European Commission, to season his conversation with quotations from the sitcom Yes, Minister.
The range of reference is impressive. Yet while the exposition is authoritative, the balance of the book does not feel quite right. There could usefully have been more about the relationship today between language and globalisation and less about literary history. And it would be have been hugely interesting to get a clearer sense of his view of the road ahead.
Henry Hitchings is the author of ‘The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English’ (John Murray)