[lg policy] English as a Juggernaut Conquers the World With Glee and an OMG

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Wed May 26 21:38:33 UTC 2010

-- English as a Juggernaut Conquers the World With Glee and an OMG

How the English Language Became the World’s Language

By Robert McCrum

331 pages. W. W. Norton & Company.

I don’t own a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad or a Sony Reader, and
haven’t hankered for any of them. (Well, all right, I wouldn’t kick an
iPad out of bed.) But there’s something about Robert McCrum’s new
book, “Globish,” that made me yearn to click through rather than turn
its pages. That’s not meant to be a put-down, or at least not much of
one. Mr. McCrum’s newspaper byline is one I look for online in The
Observer of London: his literary columns, at observer.guardian.co.uk,
are plumped with real learning, and they have a dire, gloomy kind of
bite. His books are mostly just as good, especially his 2004 biography
of the comic novelist P. G. Wodehouse. Mr. McCrum is not especially
funny, but he seems to compose his lightly charred sentences the same
way Wodehouse roasted his. That is, as Wodehouse put it, “I just sit
at a typewriter and curse a bit.”

“Globish” would be a natural e-book, partly because of its subject
matter. It’s a meditation on the English language, about where it’s
been and where it’s going. And if English words are going anywhere,
they’re going online. Like would-be starlets bound for Hollywood,
they’re aching to be backlit. “Globish” seems e-bookish for other
reasons, too. It’s smart but casual, more gastropub than white-linen
dining; the author seems to have written it with his left hand. It
revisits material from “The Story of English” (1986), which Mr. McCrum
wrote with William Cran and Robert MacNeil. Some of this new book is
likely to seem dated before too long, but part of the point of
“Globish” is that English mutates and spreads as quickly as those
zombies in the movie “28 Days Later” sprint down a freeway.

I can envision an e-book version of “Globish,” too, that contained
links, where appropriate, to some of Mr. McCrum’s intellectual
journalism, so you could make your own sidebars. You’d get the Full
McCrum. And you’d pay a little less than (ouch) $26.95. A critic can

Mr. McCrum, whose wife, Sarah Lyall, is a London-based correspondent
for The New York Times, proposes in “Globish” that alongside the
Internet, the globalization of English and of “English literature,
law, money and values” is nothing less than “the cultural revolution
of my generation.” He stands back and witnesses with awe the
language’s myriad offshoots, like Manglish (Malay and English) and
Konglish (English in South Korea). He notes that in Mumbai, people
speak a “mixture of Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi and, finally,
English.” Salman Rushdie has coined a delightful acronym for this
Mumbai mix: it is “Hug-me.” English is the world’s aspirational
language, the lingua franca of international culture and commerce.
Anyone who wishes truly to speak to the world must master it. During
the crisis in Georgia in 2008, Russia lost the propaganda war for
days, Mr. McCrum writes, because it did not address the world in
English, while the canny Georgians did.

One of Mr. McCrum’s predictions in “Globish” is that English is about
to make a “declaration of independence from the linguistic past.”
English is shedding many of its colonial and imperial connotations and
is becoming what the anthropologist Benedict Anderson calls a type of
“post-clerical Latin.” The road signs on the information highway are
written in English. Eighty percent of the world’s home pages are
composed in some kind of it. Texting is playfully bending English by
the nanosecond. LOL and GR8 and BTW are becoming more international,
and more beloved, than Coca-Cola or James Bond ever were. As the
increasingly harried editors of the O.E.D. might put it, OMG.

Mr. McCrum is a close observer of why English has proved so sturdy and
so vital. As a language, it is, he tells us (at least four times)
“contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive.” It is also
“informal, demotic, vigorous and profane.” It is surely also mad,
crazy, sexy and cool, but he does not quite go there.

More helpfully, Mr. McCrum notes that, unlike many languages, English
has always gained strength and nuance from the bottom rather than
being imposed or filtering down from the top of society.

“English has always had this subversive capacity,” he writes, “to run
with the hare and hunt with the hounds, to articulate the ideas of
both government and opposition, to be the language of ordinary people
as well as the language of power and authority, rock ’n’ roll and
royal decree.” Its synonyms are an embarrassment of riches.

Mr. McCrum has a playful, allusive mind, and it’s a pleasure to watch
him link, say, the seventh-century English poet Caedmon to Seamus
Heaney, or Mark Twain to “The Simpsons.” He is comfortable with high
and low.

“No one, indeed, who lives a full life in the contemporary world, and
responds intensely to it,” he notes, “can ignore the fractional
degrees of separation between blogs and books; politics and dub
poetry; soccer and fantasy; literature and manga novels; historians,
biographers and moviemakers.”

Mr. McCrum refers to some particularly wacky idioms as “the fuzzy end
of the linguistic lollipop.” My problem with his new book may be that
it’s not fuzzy enough. The bulk of the book is a potted history of the
development and spread of the English language. It’s material we’ve
read before, even in the author’s own “Story of English,” and Mr.
McCrum can’t help lapsing at times into earnest Ken Burns tour-guide
mode. (“The Story of English” was a companion volume to a PBS series.)

The story of the English language is a good one, and Mr. McCrum
adroitly touches all the bases, from Old English to Middle English,
from Gutenberg to Noah Webster, from Thomas Jefferson to V. S.
Naipaul. He charts dozens of wars, revolutions and conquests in
between. This material is not dull, and it will be a smart kind of
freshman survey course to many. But Mr. McCrum’s heart is in the newer
material, his assessment of our contagious, adaptable, populist,
subversive language around 2010.

If Mr. McCrum has fears about the dominance of English corrupting
other cultures and squelching their tongues, he mostly plays them
down. He is more interested in our language’s ability to strike hammer
blows for liberty, for the idea that people and ideas should mingle
and be free.

His book has a funny, lovely bit about a company that offered classics
rewritten in telephone texting format. Hamlet’s famous line was
rendered “2b?Ntb? = ?” Reading that may rankle. But as Mr. McCrum
writes, “In a world where 175,000 new blogs are launched every day, to
argue about the cultural validity of text-Shakespeare is a bit like
arguing about your bill in the saloon bar of the Titanic.”

If a screen version of “Globish” had contained a link to some
text-Shakespeare, I would have clicked on over for a moment. When it
comes to language, 2b always trumps Ntb.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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