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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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide