Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language by Robert McCrum

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Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language by Robert McCrum

Category: History
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Flipping
Reviewed by Sue Flipping
Summary: Fascinating subject but the book fails to excite.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: May 2010
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 9780670916405

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We British tend to forget just how insignificant we are.

Tiny geographically. Tiny in population. Tiny, whatever we tell ourselves, on the world stage.

Yet our language is spoken in various forms worldwide by approximately four billion people; about a third of the world's population. How did that happen? This is what Robert McCrum attempts to explain.

Globish is a simplified form of English, codified by a Frenchman, Jean-Paul Nerriere, in the mid 1990s. Nerriere travelled the world as vice-president of IBM in America and made two observations: that most of the people he met in business spoke a form of English and, perhaps more importantly, that people who spoke English as a second language often communicated with each other more effectively than with those who spoke English as their mother tongue. He reasoned that this was because the speakers of English as a foreign language shared the same problems of understanding and automatically found ways around the problems. Speakers of English as a first language used idioms, jokes and complex sentence structures that unwittingly obscured meaning.

So Nerriere reduced the entire English vocabulary of some quarter of a million words to just 1,500 essential terms. This list, he maintains, is all you need to be able to communicate with anyone else in the world. Globish was born.

The question remains: why was it English (rather than French, German or Chinese, for example) that Nerriere heard spoken in whichever corner of the world he was visiting?

McCrum addresses the question by writing about a people and their successive empires coming out of nowhere to create a culture that – against the odds – has achieved lasting global consequence. He covers invasions and emigrations, inventions and frustrations; battles won and lost; key events that, he argues, had such an impact on the English language that it became more flexible and robust than any other. Conquerors whose own languages gradually dovetailed with that of the conquered ensured a vocabulary rich in synonyms. Adventurers brought home words that have been so assimilated that they no longer seem foreign. Emigration to America in the 17th century helped, especially as this led subsequently to the use of English as the language of the techno-explosion. If you have ever received a text with its simple vocabulary, simple sentence structure, bare bones English, you have probably read something written in Globish.

Then, of course, there is the influence of those who stayed at home. William Caxton became one of the first to commit vernacular English to paper; almost single-handedly he could be blamed for the apparent oddities of spelling that seem to defy rules and sense, yet he also gave credibility to 'lighte Englisshe' – the language spoken by the common man.

It is a fascinating tale and the book abounds with detail. Unfortunately for Robert McCrum, his book does not always compare favourably with others that cover similar ground; Jeremy Paxman's The English, for example, or Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. Undoubtedly McCrum has done his homework but, for someone who is Associate Editor of The Observer, there is a surprising flatness about his writing. It is also difficult to find facts that have a genuine 'wow' factor. They crop up occasionally: did you know, for example, that there is only one word in the Beatles song 'Yesterday' that does not come directly from Old English? Or that the text abbreviations 'lol' and 'gr8' are used universally whatever the texter's original language?

It was also disappointing that there was relatively little attention paid to the development of the language itself. An opportunity for another book perhaps.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you're interested in language the have a look at our Top Ten Books About Language.

Buy Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language by Robert McCrum at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language by Robert McCrum at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language by Robert McCrum at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language by Robert McCrum at Amazon.com.


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