Globish

In preparation for next spring’s course on English in the World, I finally sat down and read Robert McCrum’s Globish: How English Became the World’s Language this summer. Norton sent me this book as a freebie, of possible interest for my History of the English Language course, but it would have caught my eye in any case, dealing not only with the history of the language but also with sociolinguistics. In spite of that, I spent most of my time with this book feeling frustrated by it, and as a result, it took me far longer to finish this book than it should have done.

There are some serious inaccuracies, at least in the sections of the book dealing with the medieval period – I can’t be certain that I know enough about the later periods to be sure in those cases, though I was frequently skeptical of McCrum’s claims. I’ll give a brief example, from page 24: “Albion [an old, probably Celtic, name for Britain] was a place of chalky giants, primitive sorcery, sun worship and sea monsters.” The prose is a bit purple for my taste, but I have a more serious quarrel with this claim. I suppose sun worship is possible, and I’m not sure exactly what he has in mind when he refers to “primitive sorcery” and “sea monsters,” but the chalky giants simply aren’t there. In fairness, I hiked past what might be termed a chalky giant in Sussex last month, but it’s probably not even medieval, let alone pre-Roman. That particular “chalky giant,” the Wilmington Long Man, cannot be shown to have existed earlier than 1710. (I would like to have a look at the scholarship that suggests that these figures might have been Tudor or Stuart political satire!) The same thing goes for the Cerne Abbas Giant and the Westbury White Horse. Most other “white horses” in England are known to be modern, except for the Uffington White Horse, which is the one “chalky giant” that can be proven to have existed before the seventeenth century. One chalk horse hardly makes a prehistoric summer.

It is similarly inaccurate to claim the following: “The cultural revolution of Christianity both enriched Old English with scores of new words (apostle, pope, angel, psalter) and, just as importantly, also introduced the capacity to articulate abstract thought” (p. 31). Yes, it is true that Old English got lots of new words from Latin after Augustine’s mission arrived in 597 (and probably earlier, in some areas, from Irish Christians), but are we now to believe that people who are not Christian are also not capable of abstract thought? Or that people who do not have access to Latin (since most Anglo-Saxons would not have read or spoken Latin, after all) are not capable of abstract thought? McCrum does acknowledge that pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons had “cumbersome and elaborate German-style portmanteaus [sic]” at their disposal, but he doesn’t seem to accept that this could be an equally valid way of expressing complex ideas. Apparently, he has not read much Old English literature.

Having mentioned purple prose, I will also note something I see as a frequently correlated phenomenon, namely, the tendency of many people to attribute character qualities to languages. On page 230, McCrum declares that, “as we have seen, English has always had this subversive capacity 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.” Earlier on that page, he refers to English as a language that remains “contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive.” This phenomenon makes no sense to me. Why is this true of English and not of other languages? Could you actually show me a language where it is not possible for speakers or writers to use the language in subversive ways? Certainly, Latin, that standard of rectitude for so many schoolchildren, had its share of subversive writings. Or, just as we use different registers of formality in English when we speak about, say, pop music or the Constitution, why is it so hard to believe that other languages might also have multiple registers in which speakers can take on both “rock ‘n’ roll and royal decree”? Even the remarkably “book” Stephen Fry falls into this sort of romanticized rhetoric about the English language (though most of what he tries to communicate in this clip is spot-on), but it always perplexes me when anyone wants to make this kind of claim that English is uniquely capable of wondrous things. It is true that a number of historical conditions and events have shaped English in a way that is highly unusual, but the idea that this comes from some sort of life force within the language itself is one that I find incomprehensible.

In spite of these inaccuracies and vagaries (and my indignation about them!), there is a lot of useful and intriguing material under discussion in Globish, but I’m uncertain about some of the large-scale ideas that drive the book. Most importantly, it’s not clear to me just how McCrum is defining “Globish,” since he sometimes seems to use the term to refer simply to English as spoken by someone from a non-Anglophone country. If “Globish” is defined in terms of the sociolinguistic situation in which it is being used, then perhaps that is an example of Globish, but if “Globish” is defined in terms of the actual linguistic units coming out of the person’s mouth (or pen or computer), in the way that we normally define different varieties of a language, then what if that person actually speaks English much as a native speaker would? (Someone who studied in the States or in Britain, say.) It’s not that “Globish” can’t be defined rigorously or that the concept isn’t productive and useful, but McCrum doesn’t offer a rigorous, nuanced discussion of his use of the term to answer questions like the one I’ve raised here.

In several spots, McCrum appears to be conflating the fall of Soviet Communism with a shift in the sociolinguistic matrix for Globish. I don’t doubt that these phenomena are related in some way, but I am skeptical that it can be captured accurately and fully in a glib statement that after 1989, “this new global culture would morph into the worldwide cultural revolution that would become Globish” (p. 225). I suspect that the connections are complex and perhaps not always what we would expect.

So, my quarrels with this book are mostly to do with execution and with the examination (or not) of the fascinating and pressing linguistic and sociopolitical ideas that it raises, rather than with the value of the material itself. This is a hugely important topic, not just for our understanding of history, but also for our sense of where our cultures, our economies, and our political systems will move in the coming decades. What is needed is a book that treats the topics, questions, and possibilities raised in Globish with more rigor. I always enjoy reading about the history of the English language, but I wonder if perhaps it would have been wise to have trimmed down some of the very lengthy history recounted in this book, in favor of a more detailed and rigorous discussion of the current sociopolitical and sociolinguistic situations and questions that McCrum discusses fairly swiftly in the final section of the book.

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