June 27, 2010


English conquers all: A somewhat sanitized, sometimes one-sided study of how a language climbed to the top of the heap (Amanda Katz, June 27, 2010, Boston Globe)

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’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.

While Mr. McCrum ought to be more honest about the fact that globalization (which is nothing more than universal Anglofication) is destroying other cultures and replacing them with our own, Ms Katz ought accept the reality that inferior cultures are losing out to the superior one (arguably, one of the only Cultures).

And, of course, the multiplicity of human languages has never been considered a boon but always a tragedy and a hindrance to human development, imposed by a jealous God:

The Tower of Babel
1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.

3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.

4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

6 And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Anglofication is just a matter of tikkun olam.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 27, 2010 7:26 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus