What did the Russian say to the German at the marketing conference? Something in English, most likely. As the working language of international business, science, diplomacy, and culture, English is spoken daily by millions of people whose native tongue is something else. Can the UK and the US, their linguistic influence diluted by masses of foreign speakers, keep a controlling stake in the language they popularized? Not for long, argues Robert McCrum in Globish, an engaging but uneven history of how this language became the world's common currency.
McCrum, an editor at the London Observer and the author of an excellent biography of P. G. Wodehouse (another popular British export), claims that English has achieved a self-sustaining "supra-national momentum" that is carrying it beyond the reach of the cultures from which it sprang. As the property of all who use it, the language will soon, he predicts, "make its own declaration of independence." McCrum intends to demonstrate that English bears traces of Anglo-American ideas about individual freedom. Subjugated after 1066 by an invading aristocracy that spoke Norman French, English became the "mother tongue of an oppressed people" and improbably survived. Later success at trade and empire enriched Britain's language via contact with others, which supplied words, like shampoo (from Hindi) and kangaroo (from the Australian Aboriginal language Guugu Yimidhirr), that make our vocabulary uniquely diverse. McCrum supplements historical vignettes with present-day color from trips to China and India, but his reporting is sometimes stale. In Bangalore, he focuses on Infosys, the company whose CEO inspired Thomas Friedman's beloved "flat world" metaphor, which McCrum duly rehashes here.
More problematic are the logical inconsistencies that plague McCrum's argument. Though he acknowledges that language is "intrinsically neutral," at other points he suggests that globalized English, true to the libertarian spirit of Anglo-American culture, is invariably "populist" and allergic to authority. He breathlessly celebrates its "subversive capacity to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, to articulate the ideas of both government and opposition," which is like praising a scalpel for its subversive ability both to wound and to heal. English literature does include a remarkable tradition of thought about rights and liberty, it's true, but the language itself is only a tool. Global English's history "puts it on the side of the individual confronting a demanding new challenge about his or her place in society"—in presumably the same way that the Chinese government, which produces a propagandistic daily newspaper in English, looks out for the individual.
McCrum hedges his assertions, concluding that globalized English is both "chicken and egg" (or perhaps McNugget and McMuffin?), the product and cause alike of capitalism's spread. It's a shame he doesn't take a more nuanced tack, because he dips into several fascinating cases along the way, including that of India under the Raj. Then the British established English-language schools to prepare Indians for the colonial bureaucracy, in very much the sort of "top-down" imposition that McCrum says is foreign to English. He says cheerfully that knowledge of English "enfranchises," with the right to participate in the global economy, the Indians who now staff call centers for American companies, and that it won't be long before their English tints ours. Maybe so, but proof of McCrum's prediction will come only when airport bookstores offer books by Globish speakers as enthusiastic about globalization as he is.