The rise of global English

The rise of global English

‘Globish’ is not my word. In the best traditions of the English language, I borrowed it from a Frenchman who first coined it in 1995. Jean-Paul Nerriere was a senior executive with IBM. Posted to Japan in the 1990s, he made one simple, but brilliant, observation. In his work for IBM, Nerriere noticed in meetings that non-native English speakers in the Far East were communicating far more successfully with their Korean and Japanese clients than competing British or American executives, for whom English was the mother tongue. Standard English might be all very well for Anglophone societies, but out there in the developing world, this non-native ‘decaffeinated English’, declared Nerriere, was becoming the new global phenomenon. In a moment of inspiration, he christened it ‘Globish’.

The newest and most widely spoken

His idea quickly caught on within the international community. In 2007, following an article about ‘Globish’ in the International Herald Tribune, Nerriere’s new word (and concept) began to gain journalistic traction. The Times journalist, Ben MacIntyre, described how, waiting for a flight from Delhi, he had overheard a conversation between a Spanish UN peacekeeper and an Indian soldier. ‘The Indian spoke no Spanish; the Spaniard spoke no Punjabi. Yet they understood one another easily. The language they spoke was a highly simplified form of English, without grammar or structure, but perfectly comprehensible, to them and to me. Only now,’ concluded MacIntyre, ‘do I realise that they were speaking “Globish”, the newest and most widely spoken language in the world.’

From some points of view, this is a description of what used to be known as a lingua franca. But not to M. Nerriere. He had now refined his idea into a practical, and specific linguistic tool: two (French language) handbooks, Decouvrez le Globish and Don’t Speak English, Parlez Globish. In these self-published, but highly successful, volumes, Nerriere began to develop a ‘Globish’ vocabulary, the 1500 essential words for international communication, and the idiom-free turns of phrase in which they might be expressed by non-native English speakers, a figure approaching two billion worldwide.

My understanding, and interpretation, of ‘Globish’ as expressed in my book Globish: How the English language became the world’s language, is slightly different from Nerriere’s. His focus was on the business community. My interest was in the dramatic shift in global self-expression that is now asserting itself throughout a world united by global capitalism and the internet. English and its international deployment can be described, in Nerriere’s words, as ‘the worldwide dialect of the third millennium’, but I wanted to explore the roots of the phenomenon, and to try to determine what, if anything, differentiated Globish from British or American English.

I knew from my work on The Story of English in 1985/6, that British English had enjoyed global supremacy throughout the nineteenth century in the days of the empire. Then, broadly speaking, its power and influence had passed to the Americans in the twentieth century (through the agency of two world wars). After that, throughout the Cold War, Anglo-American culture and values had become as much part of global consciousness as the combustion engine. Indeed, from 1945 to 1989, there was hardly a transaction in the modern world that was innocent of English in some form. But its scope was always limited by its troubled association with British imperialism and the pax Americana.

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Microsoft + English

By the turn of the millennium that was all in the past. English language and culture were becoming rapidly decoupled from their contentious past, and disassociated from post-colonial trauma. It was becoming possible to detect a new cultural revolution at work: the emergence of English as a global communications phenomenon with a supra-national momentum that made it independent of its Anglo-American origins, a language as perfectly suited to the twenty-first century as British and American English had been (successively) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I decided you could even express the idea in a quasi-scientific formula, English + Microsoft = Globish.

Armed with this idea, I began to narrate a familiar tale, the story of English, from the point of view of a language that would eventually achieve this extraordinary pre-eminence, looking for the qualities and turning-points that, with hindsight, would prove decisive in the making of Globish.

So Globish is not about the making of a 1500-word vocabulary, but it is about the way in which Indians, Chinese, and many Africans are now turning to English as a liberating and modernizing phenomenon. For instance, last year the government of francophone Rwanda not only applied to join the British Commonwealth but also unilaterally declared English to be the official language of the country. Here was an example of a lingua franca with the capacity (thanks to the IT revolution) to zoom through space and time at unprecedented speed.

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Broad, low, and close to the ground

At the same time, as well as exploring a decisive new chapter in international communications, Globish begins to identify the viral nature of this lingua franca, the qualities of the English language and its culture that make it so contagious, adaptable, populist, and even subversive. It describes a process that echoes contemporary experience, a socio-cultural dynamic that is bottom-up not top-down. Walt Whitman, celebrating the genius of American English once wrote that English was not ‘an abstract construction of dictionary makers’ but a language that had its basis broad and low, close to the ground’. That’s the guiding intuition of Globish, and I’m hoping that my account of it in will strike a chord with writers and readers across the Globish-speaking world.

From a university perspective, the emergence of English as a global communications phenomenon that can celebrate a real independence from its Anglo-American roots is at once thrilling and decisive. Only a fool would predict the future of this development but, at the very least, the myth of Babel will be ripe for some urgent redefinition.

Robert McCrum is associate editor of the Observer newspaper, UK, and author of Wodehouse. A Life (2004) and Globish. How the English Language became the World’s Language (2009)

Where next with the OED Online?

  1. As well as Globish, Robert McCrum has written about the influence of P.G. Wodehouse in the OED. The OED also has definitions of World English and Global English.
  2. With subscriber access to the OED Online you can trace worldwide influences on English. Use the Advanced search to find sets of words by region/place or language of origin. You can also refine searches by date to discover recent additions to the OED. Results can be shown as lists or as Timelines.

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