Profit on His Tongue

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Speakeasy  Author Robert McCrum
Speakeasy
Author Robert McCrum

ROBERT McCRUM’S Globish is a strange sort of book. Its ostensible subject is the emergence of a kind of stripped-down English as the universal patois, the rudimentary dialect of the world’s marketplace, of the world as marketplace. But there is an unresolved contradiction at work through the book on the relationship between this stripped down dialect — Globish — and English. Is it supplementary, complementary or, as has been suggested by the French inventor of the term itself, antagonistic — i.e. does the rise of Globish spell the decline of English? But much of McCrum’s book consists of a history of the English-speaking peoples — Churchill’s title — which is principally an exercise in Anglo chauvinism, in which English hovers constantly on the margins, subordinate but significant, like one of Wodehouse’s butlers. The Guardian reviewer noticed this oddity, this incongruity between the book’s contemporary argument and its historical substance, and remarked that it was rather like Land of Hope and Glory recast as a hymn to English.

Well, the Brits can deal with their history — the aging prima donna, the Once and Former, sunset at last. Meanwhile, McCrum. The book works — or doesn’t — at two levels. The first is as a description of a phenomenon, the global spread aforementioned. This is entirely accurate. French, Arabic, Russian — in an earlier time, Sanskrit, Latin — have all been used for transnational communication, but the current currency of English — or Globish? — is unprecedented. In the airport lounges of the world, the default language for notices and announcements is English. I doubt that the services of inter-preters have been dispensed with in serious international negotiations, but, yes, for the minimal communication that passes for communication now, a kind of English suffices.

Globish
Robert McCrum Penguin India
368 pp; Rs 550

The second level is as an explanation of this phenomenon. McCrum seems to think it has something to do with the intrinsic — linguistic, historical — qualities of English, something that makes it quintessentially modern, democratic, inherently capable of becoming the universal demotic. As an explanation, however, this is rubbish — rub di boli, for us bilinguals. Linguists have stripped McCrum quite as thoroughly as Globish has stripped English — no single linguistic explanation can account for the phenomenon. As against English’s world-conquering simplicity, Russian is maddeningly complex, as were the globish languages of an earlier time, Sanskrit and Arabic. Indonesian, on the other hand, has neither gender nor conjugation, apparently — but there is little chance of it taking over the world. The explanation has more to do with the power and geographical dominance of the native users of the language — an advantage that gained a exponential force-multiplier in the form of colonialism, which bred further colonialism — most notably, the American colony, which has become, in our very different times, itself the Great Hegemon.

The clue to McCrum’s contorted evasion of this obvious link between language and power might lie in his naively utopian account of the world of corporate globalisation — the “flat world” in which the peoples of the world finally come into their own — his millennial account of “the third millennium” of which, we are assured, Globish is the lingua wellnot- quite franca. McCrum is right, of course — but not in the way he thinks. Orwell’s Newspeak, in Nineeteen Eighty-Four, was derived from an ancestor of McCrum’s Globish — CK Ogden’s Basic. Globish is the Newspeak of this brave new world, the bare and brainless dialect in which the stark realities of this world cannot even be called to mind, let alone be talked about.

Rai is Professor in the Department of English, Delhi University

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