Quick thoughts on Globish

I enjoyed the extract from Globish, and its thesis is basically right. A few first thoughts, queries and caveats:

  • The unprecedented rise of English since 1990: probably true, though I’d like to see some figures on the (population-relative) spread of English during the late 19th century.
  • ‘Englasian’ (Chinglish, Singlish, Konglish, Indian English, etc.) is set up in opposition to British/American English – which is true, but it’s also increasingly in opposition to emerging standards of English (based on BrE/AmE) in Asia. See my link about the Chinese government trying to crack down on ’embarrassing’ Chinglish.
  • McCrum sees too strong a connection between political ideological aggression and language uptake, for my money. In that sense his thesis already feels very ‘Bush-era’ (with obvious caveats about assuming too much change per administration, etc.). While ideology helps language survival and can act as a vector for spread (esp. religion – think of Arabic as a first language or Sanskrit as a second), trade and movement of people are the key determiners for language adoption. English is precarious as a global language because trade spread has been out of proportion to movement of native English-speaking populations for the last century.
  • I tend to disagree with McCrum’s strong connection between cultural and linguistic ‘imperialism’, on the same grounds. Culture in the rather narrow sense McCrum uses (jeans, burgers and rock music) exists largely as a side effect of trade, which brings us back to the economic power of language (and the linguistic power of economics, I suppose). Cultures can propel languages in the absence of trade, but characteristically the propelled languages end up as museum pieces – consider Greek in the Roman Empire, or Latin in the Holy Roman Empire. The spread of English, as the book notes, is characterised by the kind of variation that occurs when the language is useful for trade but doesn’t have that much cultural prestige. (This is what happened when Latin broke down into the Romance languages in western Europe, while at the same time ‘surviving’ as a classical language because of continued religious devotion and cultural admiration.)
  • There are some really interesting insights in this extract, and I’d like to read the whole book to catch some more. I’d love to know more about English’s use of the web, and the distribution between varieties of English online. Many of the commonly traded stats on this are deeply flawed. On a similar note, has anyone else noticed the increasing propensity for riot police to have ‘Police’ written in English on their uniforms, for the benefit of international news crews?
  • The development of ‘a highly simplified form of English, without grammar or structure’ is eerily recollective of the language contact processes that led to the Romance languages and Middle English – both of which occurred when the Roman world was becoming less internationalised, not more.
  • Finally, glad to see some words of sense from the late Bob Burchfield, who was Chief Editor of the OED (but sadly left several years before I worked on the project) – worth flagging: ‘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.’
  • Alex

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