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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis