‘Globish’ Author Explains How English Has Taken Root Worldwide

July 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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"Globish" Author Robert McCrum explains to Ray Suarez why the English language went global and how it has become the first worldwide language.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: how and why English went global.

And to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: The British Empire’s high watermark probably came in the late 19th century, but England’s most durable contribution to the world may be the English language itself.

So argues Robert McCrum in his new book, “Globish.” He’s the associate editor at The London Observer and was the co-author, with our own Robert MacNeil, of “The Story of English.”

Was this an accident, or, after the British Empire gave way after the First World War to American dominance, was it almost an inevitability?

ROBERT MCCRUM, author, “Globish”: I think what’s accidental is that one empire using one set of language and values and cultural reference points gave away to another empire, the Pax Americana, using essentially the same.

And this is the first time in human history this has happened. And, so, you have a succession, one — from one to the other. And what I’m arguing here is that both of those phases, the British phase of the 19th century, and the American phase of the 20th century, which are quite distinct, were both of them in different ways associated either with colonialism or some kind of cultural imperialism.

And what’s happened now is that what I have called globish, which is the 21st century manifestation, is somehow value-free. It’s somehow decoupled from its past and people can now use it with a sense of liberation, rather the sense of being oppressed by it.

It’s a facilitator and it makes — it gives people the opportunity to develop their careers and express themselves in a way they wouldn’t have felt in the past.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s funny. At the beginning at the book, it’s not altogether clear that English is even going to be the dominant language in England.

ROBERT MCCRUM: No, it’s a skin of the teeth. It’s a thriller. I mean, for thousands of years — or about 1,000 of years, it was — if you had said in, say, 800 or 900 A.D., in 2010, people would be discussing a global language, they would have looked at you in disbelief. The odds on it happening were thousands-to-one against.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, you talk a lot about technology and what it makes possible. And if you go on the Web, you can find efforts to keep tiny and struggling languages alive, at the same time as you find that same technology ramming home English to every corner of the world.

ROBERT MCCRUM: Yes. Technology is part of this — this third phase, this globish phase, is really the story of global technology, the I.T. technology revolution and global capitalism. Those two things go together.

So, the BlackBerry, Microsoft, and Dow Jones all add up to a globish phenomenon, I would say.

RAY SUAREZ: If you look around the history for parallels, one that comes to mind certainly is Latin. Latin had a certain primacy throughout what is now Western Europe, the Mediterranean world, but, over time, it turned into Italian and Portuguese and Spanish and Catalan and Romansh and Romanian and everything else.

Is English going to break up into separate languages?

ROBERT MCCRUM: When we finished “The Story of English” in 1986, the academic consensus amongst many of the scholars that we talked to was that English was likely to break up into mutually unintelligible varieties, so that Caribbean English, Scottish English, Singaporean English would over time diverge from the standard to the point where they became separate languages.

Well, it hasn’t even begun to happen. And what I have described is really the reverse of it becoming everyone’s second language and becoming this global phenomenon.

RAY SUAREZ: But not enough time has passed. It took like 1,000 years for it to happen in the case of Latin.

ROBERT MCCRUM: And who knows what will happen in the next 50 years. If global capitalism were to change, if the I.T. revolution were to go in a different direction, who knows? But, at the moment, I would say the bet is — the odds are pretty good that globish will become the default position for anybody who is stuck for a means of communication in a crisis or a situation where they need to communicate internationally.

RAY SUAREZ: Is English just easier to learn than some of these other aspirants to being the world’s second language?

ROBERT MCCRUM: I think it’s easier than Chinese, because, after all, it doesn’t require the acquisition of characters. And even some Chinese can’t — find it difficult. The illiteracy in China is quite profound.

It’s easier. It’s also become quite simple. I mean, the core of our conversation is Anglo-Saxon, actually. And you can construct a very good sentence with a few words in Anglo-Saxon English, Old English, or in modern globish, and still get your meaning across. And it doesn’t have to be perfect. The point about it is, the impurities give it the vitality.

RAY SUAREZ: And its attraction? I mean, you talk about a 1,500-word vocabulary that’s a pretty workable version of English.

ROBERT MCCRUM: It’s workable. Shakespeare has a vocabulary of about 30,000. The King James Bible has a vocabulary of about 9,000. So, you can get it down to about 5,000, 4,000, 3,000. That kind of level still works.

And, actually, if I may say so, President Obama is, in a sense, a globish president, origins in Kansas, Kenya, Hawaii, Indonesia. His speeches are very simple. And his campaign slogans — slogans like, yes, we can, change we can believe in — are globish slogans.

The word globish is not my word. It belongs to a Frenchman who has marketed the idea of a limited vocabulary. He took the first inaugural address and he tried to turn it into globish, simplified English. And he couldn’t, because it already was.


RAY SUAREZ: So, what happened to allow this to be uncoupled from politics? People learn English now, and it’s — it opens doors, rather than putting up walls.


I think it has to do with the end of the Cold War, combined with the tremendous boom in the economy, boom in the economy, American economy particularly, in the 1990s, combined with the I.T. revolution.

You have three things, like a perfect storm of change, creating an ideal situation for this to happen, plus a new generation, young people growing up who have not really lived through any of the traumas of the past 50 years. And, for them, language doesn’t have the — is not loaded in the way it had been for the previous generation.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert McCrum, it’s been fun speaking globish with you.

ROBERT MCCRUM: Thank you very much.