THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

English conquers all

A somewhat sanitized, sometimes one-sided study of how a language climbed to the top of the heap

The Mark Twain House & Museum via AP (left); Charles Dharapak/Associated Press Robert McCrum notes how white writers, like Mark Twain, appropriated black speech but gives short shrift to how African-Americans made contributions to English, with the exception of a few notable individuals like Barack Obama. The Mark Twain House & Museum via AP (left); Charles Dharapak/Associated Press
Robert McCrum notes how white writers, like Mark Twain, appropriated black speech but gives short shrift to how African-Americans made contributions to English, with the exception of a few notable individuals like Barack Obama. (The Mark Twain House &Amp; Museum via AP (Left); Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)
By Amanda Katz
June 27, 2010

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If you can read this sentence, you are either a native English speaker or one of the billion people — and this second group is three times the size of the first — who learned the language later in life. Though English lags behind Mandarin and Spanish in numbers of native speakers, it increasingly serves as lingua franca in business, diplomacy, science, and technology. Given the reach of the Internet and American cultural exports, its influence seems all but unstoppable.

In “Globish,’’ British author and editor Robert McCrum sets out, first, to summarize the history of (as the subtitle states) “how the English language became the world’s language.” He describes his story as “the suspenseful narrative of a people and their successive empires coming out of nowhere to create a culture that — against the odds — has achieved lasting global consequence.”

So far, so good. But McCrum has a second, more dubious goal: to rebrand English as “Globish.” Globish, to McCrum, is gloriously “contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive,” free of its colonial and imperial past, and able to unite us all without harm to existing cultures. If you believe that last bit, there’s a bridge I’d like to sell you — in, as the Lanape people once termed it, Mannahatta.

McCrum, best known as coauthor of the book and PBS series “The Story of English,’’ begins at the beginning: with the successive Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, and Norman invasions of the future England. These invaders gradually built a language that, by the 16th century, developed a kind of hybrid vigor. To a sturdy Germanic grammar and domestic vocabulary, it added Latin and French terms to fill out the scientific, professional, and cultural registers. (McCrum provides neat examples of how, as a result, English contains synonyms such as go, depart and exit, respectively derived from Old English, French, and Latin.) McCrum nicely summarizes this complex history from its earliest roots to the introduction of the printing press and later to the dawn of the American empire. Flexible and expansive, backed by one and then two aggressive nations, English conquered and thrived.

McCrum is better on England, politically and factually, than America. A section on African diasporic influence is almost entirely about how white writers, from Marlowe to Twain to Joel Chandler Harris to Mailer, appropriated black speech. Until he reaches Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama (that archetypal Globish figure), there is almost nothing to suggest that black people had made their own major contributions to English. Elsewhere, he describes the Civil War as “a poignant struggle between an old and a new way of life” — a description more suitable to a Confederate History Month proclamation. Then there are plain errors: The Americanization of Paris in 1919 was signaled by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas settling at 27, rue de Fleurus (real dates: 1903 and 1910, respectively); FDR was inaugurated in 1932 (correct year: 1933).

These gaffes and tone-deaf moments speak to the book’s central problem. McCrum’s enthusiasm for Globish is such that his book sometimes feels like a corporate history, full of platitudes and true-ish detail but with little attention to the downsides or bigger implications of the business. He does make the rare concession that “[t]hose who want to characterize Globish as a kind of benign virus . . . must also acknowledge its imperial and colonial past.” But he more often insists that it has “long ago [left] the imperial hang-up behind.” He fails to substantiate that claim and seems oblivious to the experience of those colonized or invaded by the English — in the United States, Canada, Australia, India, parts of Africa. He writes, for example: “Apart from the Aborigines, an estimated 300,000 in 1788, Australia was an apparently empty continent.” Much like Great Britain, which is today entirely uninhabited. Except for the Brits.

This blind boosterism extends into the present. Globish “will, for the most part, leave local languages unscathed,” he writes. To the contrary, some linguists project that half the world’s languages will disappear by 2100 — in large part because of encroachment by English.

By denying this, McCrum recuses himself from nearly all important questions about the English lingua franca. Access to the language is associated with prosperity and global connection — so what should we do about the trade-off with linguistic diversity? If most English speakers are nonnatives, who controls “proper” English? Will new languages splinter off, or, in constant global conversation, will we converge on a new idiom — a genuine Globish? What might we gain? What might we lose?

Since McCrum believes that everyone wins when you teach the world to sing in English (to paraphrase Coca-Cola’s classic soft-imperial slogan), “Globish’’ is stuck outside the debate. He dismisses doubters with a quotation from The Sunday Times: “to be born an English-speaker is to win one of the top prizes in life’s lottery. And this can be said without a hint of triumphalism, sexism, racism, without annoying anybody much except the French.”

I appreciate the prize, but I’m with the French. As linguist Claude Hagège writes, “Whatever argument we give, the death threat that weighs upon languages today takes the guise of English. And I wager that the wisest Anglophones would not, in fact, wish for a world with only one language.” English is a beautiful language, true. But every language represents a marvelous solution to the problem of putting our world into words. When one disappears, an irreplaceable cultural logic vanishes as well.

Amanda Katz is a writer, editor, and translator in New York. She can be reached at amanda@amandalkatz.com.

GLOBISH: How the English Language Became the World’s Language By Robert McCrum

Norton, 331 pp., $26.95