Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language

English is the medium of instruction at my eight-year-old daughter's school in Mumbai. She is also taught French. She can speak Hindi (which has the fraught and controversial status of being India's national language) as well as a smattering of Marathi (the language that is native to Maharashtra, the western Indian state of which Mumbai is the capital) and is fluent in Bengali (our mother tongue).

At home, we speak Bengali. But while we do that, we unconsciously use English words in every other sentence. These words (whether "please", "thanks" or "sorry", or more complex, loaded ones) have become so intimately braided into the fabric of the Bengali language that we no longer think of them as "English words", nor do we ever use their Bengali equivalents. I don't know whether my daughter thinks in English, but I notice that
whenever she feels the urge to express something strongly, she switches almost entirely to English.

So it comes as a sort of vindication to learn towards the end of Robert McCrum's erudite, riveting and often very funny Globish that "about half the world's population - approximately four billion people - have knowledge of, or acquaintance with" English.

McCrum does not use the term "Globish", coined by Jean-Paul Nerrière, a French-speaking former IBM executive and amateur linguist, in its original sense. Nerrière was talking about a sort of "decaffeinated English", unencumbered by the rules of grammar and shorn of its rich vocabulary, stripped down to a core set of words that are a means to a single end: comprehensible cross-cultural communication. McCrum deals with the world's English as it is written and spoken across the planet, and explores how and why it came to be such an inextricable part of global consciousness. Globish, he tells us in his prologue, is the biography of this phenomenon.

It is a huge undertaking, and if the biography on occasion teeters on the edge of being a hagiography, that is very much to do with the nature of the subject. McCrum alludes to, but does not go very deep into, the divisive function of English in post-colonial societies, in which it is the instinctive language of the educated middle class and, like French and Latin once upon a time in England, is the language in which so many of those societies conduct their intellectual discourse.

Rather, his interest - and it is a fascinating subject to be interested in - lies in the manner in which English, born in "a foggy archipelago off the north-west coast of Europe", has transcended the legacy of empire and of Anglo-American supremacy to become "a supra-national means of global communication".

The chicken-and-egg question that McCrum tries to answer is this: has globalisation engendered this phenomenon, or does global capitalism feed off the chameleon-like, enduring nature of the English language? The author goes on an astute and intrepid search that brings together old-fashioned pavement-pounding reporting, scholarly consideration of theory, and a keen sense of the language and its canonical practitioners.

One of the chief reasons for English becoming the world's language is its history, its flexibility and its ability to embrace influences. That is how it is suitable for high and low culture, as much for the formal as for the demotic. You can rear (English) or raise (Norse) a child, McCrum tells us at one point. Later, he quotes Keats on Shakespeare's "negative capability" (an annihilation of the self that allows the poet's mind to be "a thoroughfare for all thoughts") and draws a parallel with the English language.

Globish - "contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive" - mirrors English in this respect. Drawing on an enormous range of influences that grows exponentially in a world in which 175,000 blogs are born every day, and fired by the ambition to inhabit a global village, Globish is not merely flourishing, but at times seems on the verge of leaving English behind and becoming a different tongue.

“Globish remains based on trade, advertising and the global market," McCrum writes in his epilogue in answer to the question he set himself at the beginning. "With its supranational momentum, above and beyond American and British influence, Globish sustains itself as both chicken and egg."

A perfect Globish moment occurred on the eve of the football World Cup in South Africa. Match officials were given a list of swear words in English and asked to watch out for them. One of the linesmen said: "We can't do this in 11 different languages, but at least we have to know the swear words in English." Yes, that's right, that will do very nicely, thank you. McCrum should have been delighted.

Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language
Robert McCrum
Viking, 320pp, £20

Soumya Bhattacharya edits the Mumbai edition of the Hindustan Times, one of India's foremost English-language dailies, and is the author of the novel "If I Could Tell You" (Tranquebar Press)

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.