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Author Charts How English is Becoming 'Globish'

From immigrants in the United States to activists in Thailand and Iran, more people are choosing English to communicate, protest and do business with the rest of the world. But as the language spreads, it is dramatically changing as well; so much so that one British author believes the evolving speech deserves a new name - "Globish."

Robert McCrum says this new form of simplified English is breaking away from its British and American roots as speakers from places like China and India transform the language.

McCrum, the author of Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language, credits a French scholar for creating the term Globish. Jean-Paul Nerrière, a French executive who worked with the computer company IBM, defined Globish as a simplified form of English using only a 1,500 word vocabulary and basic grammar.

Author Robert McCrum
Author Robert McCrum

"Globish is the language that two non-English speakers would use. Let's say a Korean meeting a Brazilian or a Russian, in France or Germany or anywhere. It is the non-native version of the English language," McCrum explained.

The power of English

McCrum's book takes a broad view of the subject, examining its political and cultural consequences. For McCrum, the worldwide spread of English is a mostly positive development that gives people the chance to communicate outside their hometowns, participate in international business and improve their lives.

"People want to be part of the world community of ideas, which would include advertising and movies and fashion," he said, recalling his interviews with people from around the globe. "The second thing is they want to better themselves economically. For economic reasons alone, acquiring English is an extremely valuable tool."

Just as important to McCrum are the political uses of Globish. He says that when thousands of Iranians took to the streets last year to protest the disputed presidential election, their message was heard around the world in English.

"The pre-history of [Globish] is very supportive of the idea of free expression," McCrum said. "It's a very appealing language from the point of view of protesters."

McCrum, who is a former book editor for London's The Observer, calls on his background in British history and literary tradition to support this idea. More than half of his book is devoted to an overview of English from ancient times to the end of the British empire. In this account, McCrum argues that as Britain and the United States transformed into democracies, liberal values somehow rubbed off on the English language. By now, he writes, Globish is:

“More than just an essential means of communication: it embodies a contemporary aspiration, one that expresses a willingness to innovate, to adapt old uses and to enfranchise new people. Language is intrinsically neutral. The history of the world’s English, however, puts it on the side of the individual confronting a demanding new challenge about his or her place in society."

Hidden costs of adopting English

McCrum acknowledges the spread of English comes at a cost to other languages, especially those spoken by relatively few people.

"What is the future of Croatian, Dutch, certain Inuit languages in North America or certain aboriginal languages in Australia?" he asked. "Should we protect them, or should we let the global force take its course?"

Despite the potential drawbacks, McCrum is ultimately a supporter of the way Globish connects people from vastly different backgrounds, making the language what he calls the "worldwide dialect of the third millennium."