Sunday, June 09, 2013

Globish: How English Became the World’s Language by Robert McCrum

            English has been steadily increasing in influence over the past 200 years, but its emergence as The global language has occurred within our own lifetimes. 
            To give an example from my own location, 20 years ago there was absolutely no English in Phnom Penh.  Now the city is so English-friendly that many expats live here for years and never feel the need to learn the local language.  Koreans, Japanese, French, German, Norwegians, and Dutch all communicate with the each other, and with the local Cambodians, in English.  And with the boom in global tourism and commerce, the local Cambodian population is more and more convinced that learning fluent English is their secret to success in life.
            And the same thing is happening in Vietnam. 
            Although Indochina was once a French colony where the educated spoke French, now the French expatriates in Cambodia and Vietnam communicate with the locals exclusively in English.
            Because this shift has occurred within our own lifetimes, I suppose everyone has their own story about when they first realized just how pervasive English had become.  For me it was the first year I was in Japan, and I was asked to coach Japanese junior high school students on English communication, not so they could talk to Americans, but so that they could communicate with a group of Korean students visiting for a cultural exchange.  Slowly it dawned on me that the Japanese didn’t speak Korean, and the Koreans didn’t speak any Japanese, but both nations studied English at school.  And so, even in the heart of Asia, English has become the language of international communication.
            It’s a fascinating subject matter, and someday I hope a good book is written about this phenomenon.
            This book is not that book.

            I have a large number of complaints about this book (and I’ll get around to nitpicking it to death further down below), but there are two principle sins the author commits.

            The first sin is that he has absolutely nothing new or noteworthy to say on the subject.  For a book only just published in 2010, it reads as if the author were 10 years out of date.  He informs you, as if this were news, that there is a large number of call centers located in India.  He expects you to be surprised that there are Starbucks in China.  He presumes he is the first person to tell you that some English words have been adopted in Japan. 
            Basically, his deep analysis of the phenomenon boils down: “Hey, did you know people around the world are speaking English?  How cool is that?”
          If you were already aware that English was being used as an international language, you will find Robert McCrum’s addition to the conversation decidedly unimpressive.

            But that’s not even the worst of it.  The second sin is that this book doesn’t even cover the topic it claims to cover.  The book’s title and cover page are essentially a lie, because this isn’t primarily a book about global English.  Primarily, it’s a history of the English language.  After giving the briefest of nods to English as a global phenomenon in the prologue to the book, McCrum then switches topics to trace the history of English.

            I was not aware of this when I bought the book, but apparently, according to this review from the New York Times [LINK HERE], much of this book is just a rework of material McCrum had published 25 years earlier in a previous book: The Story of English.  To this material, he apparently just bookended an introduction about global English, and a couple chapters at the end describing the spread of English.  (I’m assuming he and his publishers thought it was an easy way to make a quick buck.)

            Okay.  Fine.  So we’re on a different ride than we expected to be on.  Once we realize that we’ve been tricked, and this is actually a book on the history of the English language, then how does it hold up?

            Well, it depends what you expect.  If you’re looking for a serious linguistic history of the English language, look elsewhere.  Despite having done work on book and television programs about the Story of English (W) McCrum doesn’t appear to have any knowledge of linguistics.   The only time he even acknowledges that some sort of linguistic process was taking place is the Great Vowel Shift, and he only devotes on paragraph to it.  He is aware of Noam Chomsky’s theories on universal grammar only through Steven Pinker’s book.  (Granted, Chomsky’s linguist work, unlike his political work, is not very accessible without a background in linguistics.  I also have derived all of my knowledge about Chomsky’s linguistic theories through Steven Pinker.  But then I’m not writing and selling books on global languages.)

            So, instead of writing a linguistic history of English, McCrum instead writes a social history of England.  For long stretches he forgets about language entirely, and just writes about English culture, but then he will occasionally remember to reference how social and political events in England influenced the development of the language.
            It’s not a serious study of the history of the English language, but it can be engaging enough if you’re interested in the subject, and you’ve not read anything like this before.
            In my case, however, my patience was thin because I had already read 2 popular histories of the English language: The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson and The Adventures of English by Melvin Bragg.  Robert Crum’s book basically just repeated the same information that was in these books.

            In fact, it’s amazing how similar these books were.  Melvin Bragg emphasizes the importance of English both in the Peasants Revolt, and how the boy king Richard II made use of English to diffuse the same revolt. Robert McCrum retells the exact same story.  Melvin Bragg tells the story of William Tyndale and the English translation of the Bible, and so does Robert McCrum.  Both Robert McCrum and Melvin Bragg describe in very similar terms the development of Australian English, and the large influx of new vocabulary that was needed to describe the Australian landscape.  Both McCrum and Bragg quote Churchill’s famous speech (“We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds; we shall fight in the fields and in the streets; we shall fight in the hills”) to illustrate how old Anglo-Saxon words are often preferred over words of Norman French origin.

            And then I got to the section on Shakespeare, and I cried aloud, “Oh no, not another section on all the words and phrases Shakespeare added to the English language!  Not this again!”  Counting The Mother Tongue, The Adventures of English, and Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare, I’ve already read through this 3 times already.  “Spare me please!”  I cried.  “I already know Shakespeare added a lot to the language.” 
            But it was not to be.  And so I had to read through Robert McCrum’s section retreading Shakespeare’s influence.

            Robert McCrum is not a bad writer per se, and every once and a while he’ll get onto an interesting digression.  For instance here is a paragraph of him describing the children of the Victorian Empire:

            Letters, diaries, novels, stories: the empire sponsored a mass of literary activity whose afterlife still lingers in the collective memory. As well as Kipling, it certainly inspired writers like Orwell and Saki (H. H. Munro). Orwell’s father, Richard Blair, sent the young Eric home in 1904, aged one.  He did not see his son again until 1911, by which time the boy had been scarred by the horrors of prep school, reproduced in his essay, ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’. No surprise, then, that the more sensitive children should escape imaginatively into a fantasy world of castles in the air. In the place of parents, the motherless and fatherless children of the empire were brought up by a monstrous regiment of aunts and governesses. Empire families came to accept as utterly normal conditions of astonishing emotional deprivation. Kipling coolly observed that ‘Children tell little more than animals, for what comes to them they accept as eternally established. Also, badly-treated children have a clear notion of what they are likely to get if they betray the secrets of the prison house before they are clear of it.’” (p. 190)

            Now, for the moment put aside the fact that at this point he’s completely forgotten about his nominal topic of the English language, and is just going off on something unrelated.  It’s still a well-written paragraph, and contains some interesting information about Kipling and Orwell.  And there are these little insightful gems hidden throughout the book. 
            But the book as a whole never comes together to resemble anything coherent.  To be perfectly blunt, I regret spending my money on it.

Other Notes:
What Exactly is Globish?
          McCrum uses the word “Globish” repeatedly throughout his book (and in the title) but it is never exactly clear what he means.  He starts out by referencing Jean-Paul Nerrière, who created the term, and attempted to spell out exactly what is the grammar and syntax of global English, but after briefly mentioning Nerriere, McCrum opts not to pursue any details of what the grammar or pronunciation of global English might look like. Sometimes he uses the word “Globish” as if it were interchangeable with the global spread of traditional Anglo-American English.  Othertimes he indicates he’s aware that as English is being adopted by different cultures, global English (Globish) may be becoming a different entity.  But after hinting at this complexity, he retreats from it and never gets around to exploring what Globish might be in terms of syntax or pronunciation, or what it might look like in the coming century.     
            To add to the confusion, sometimes he uses the word Globish to refer to the spread of Anglo-American culture, or simply the globalization of commerce.
            Basically, he doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of what his topic is. 
            In this review, whenever McCrum uses the word “Globish” I’m just going to assume the word is interchangeable with the English language.

Robert McCrum’s View of English:

          Throughout the book, McCrum appears to be advancing a bizarre theory.  He believes that the English culture is inherently more democratic than any other culture, and that this is somehow tied in with the English language.  So as the English language spreads, democratic values spread as well.
          Now I know what you’re thinking: “Why that’s ridiculous on the face of it!  He can’t possibly be arguing that!  Are you sure you read him correctly?”

            Well, yeah, fairly sure.  At the very least, he’s heavily implying it throughout the book.

            His logic seems to be like this: for a period after 1066, Norman French was the language of the aristocracy, and English was the language of the common people.  This set both languages off on a separate evolution: English became the language by which the aspirations of the lower classes can be best expressed, and French became the language of the upper classes.  (And this apparently has remained true through the ages even though the historical circumstances on which the argument is based have long since changed.)
            It is part of the enduring appeal of the world’s English that its origins are associated with the history of the many not the few, and with the street not the court or cloister” McCrum writes on page 55.
            Robert McCrum then embarks on a history of England in which he highlights all the popular democratic heroes and movements: the Magna Carta, Simon de Montfort, John Ball and Wat Tyler, Jack Cade, William Tyndale, Thomas Rainsborough and Thomas Paine.
            Here he must be given half-credit.  At the very least, he’s highlighting the right heroes—unlike more conservative historians who write histories of Britain and only mention kings, princes, and bishops.  If there is anything about British history or culture to be celebrated, it can be found in the popular movements that McCrum rightly chooses to praise.
            But where he goes off the rails is the implication that all of this is unique to Anglo-culture, and that it is somehow tied in with the English language.  (The Magna Carta, for instance, was a Latin document drawn up by Norman barons, something McCrum must know, but seems to forget when he repeatedly lists it among the accomplishments of the English tongue.)  Also a study of the history of any country will reveal the same popular uprisings and resistance to authority.

            When describing the origins of the American Revolution, McCrum states that it was their Anglo-culture and English language that caused them to revolt.
            All the participants [Americans] are conducting their debate, some 3,000 miles from London, in American English, a common language of which they are inordinately proud, as we shall see.  Secondly, their frame of political reference is exclusively English, linking oppression, taxation and Parliament.  When these elements are fused they will make a third, instinctually eloquent, anti-authoritarian and democratic.” (p. 94).
            Fine, but rebellions and democratic ideals have occurred in many countries throughout history without the benefit of the English language.

            In describing the spread of global English in the 20th and 21st centuries, McCrum explicitly links English with the spread of democracy. 
            The world’s English does not just answer to an economic imperative. This free-market boom also had immediate political consequences, stimulating a worldwide trend towards democratic change and democratic vocabulary.  Rickety autocratic regimes from Asia (South Korea) to Latin America (Chile) which had been in the habit of governing in the selfish interests of a ruling clique were now forced to take a path that was more consensual, transparent and consumer-friendly.  Global culture and economics, the English language and global banking, began to achieve some remarkable transformations.” (p.233)

            In my opinion, he’s on very thin ground when he links English to the spread of democracy.  Ironically, the two autocratic regimes he cite here, South Korea and Chile, only existed in the first place because the English speaking world (the USA) created and supported them.  And they were both overthrown not by the spread of global English, but by their own people speaking in their respective native languages.

            And a few pages later:           
            Globish [global English] becomes 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” (p.242)

            Is it just me, or does the 3rd sentence in this paragraph directly contradict the 2nd sentence?  After 242 pages, I was glad that McCrum finally admitted that language is actually neutral.  (English is inherently no more democratic than Spanish or French).  But then he goes on to say which side English is on.  If English is “on the side of the individual”, then how can it be neutral?  Neutrality means it’s not on either side.

            If English is the good guy in this story, French is the bad guy.  Just as McCrum repeatedly states or implies that English is the language of democratic progress, he repeatedly implies that French is the language of inflexibility and obstruction.  I’ll list some examples of cheap shots at the French in my next section.

The Long List of Things in this Book Which Annoyed Me
            Somewhere along the way, I completely lost my patience with this book, and as I continued reading, every time I saw something that was wrong, poorly written, or just plain stupid, I took out my pen and wrote a comment in the margins.  (I should caveat that the effect of this book on my patience was cumulative.  Most of these mistakes I would probably have forgiven in another writer, but as my patience deteriorated I became less and less forgiving and started marking up more and more stuff, and I got more and more nit-picky about small things.) 

* (from page 18): “As we embark on this journey [of English history] from the icy swamps of pre-Roman Saxony to the shopping malls of Seoul, this is a good moment to concede the magic of a subject that gives new meaning to a faded old brown parchment (Magna Carta), a 900-page book bound in pigskin (Shakespeare’s First Folio), a country house on a Virginian mountaintop (Monticello), a 272-word presidential speech (the Gettysburg Address) a pop song (“Buffalo Soldiers”) and a scratchy black-and-white videoclip of men on the moon (‘one giant leap for mankind…’)
            --I’ve already mentioned this, but Magna Carta is a Latin document, not English.

* (from page 57). “In immediate practical terms, this flowering of English individualism expressed itself in the closing decades of the fourteenth century and throughout the fifteenth in the drive for an English translation of the Bible, a movement led by John Wyclif and his Lollards, a word meaning ‘mutters’ or ‘mumblers’.
            I suspect the reason McCrum doesn’t mention that Lollards is a Dutch word is because that would undercut his thesis that popular movements are always expressed in English.

* To support his argument about the rebellious nature of the English common people, McCrum describes Jack Cade’s rebellion on pages 67-68.  But instead of going to proper historical sources, McCrum gets all his information about Jack Cade from Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2.
            Shakespeare had a cynical view of Jack Cade’s peasant rebellion, and he is not a reliable source.  For dramatic purposes, Shakespeare alters the history so that Jack Cade is exploiting popular resentment to help his benefactor the Duke of York.  In Shakespeare, Jack Cade’s only goal is to destabilize society and spread chaos.
            The famous line, “let’s kill all the lawyers,” is not historical, but is Shakespeare’s invention.  Furthermore, even within Shakespeare, this line is not actually attributed to Jack Cade himself, but to another rebel (Dick the Butcher).
            The first time McCrum cites this line, while implying that it has historical value, he at least manages to remember that it was not Jack Cade himself.  But then on page 95, McCrum cites the line again, and this time he attributes it directly to Jack Cade.  (!!ARGH!! Right, listen up McCrum!  The line is not from Jack Cade, the historical figure—it’s Shakespeare’s interpretation of Jack Cade.  And even within Shakespeare, the line is not attributed to Jack Cade himself but to another rebel!!)

* On page 117, McCrum describes the build-up to the American Civil War. “Eventually, the issue [slavery], like all great issues in the United States, came before the Supreme Court which, after months of controversy, ruled that a slave was not a citizen. The courts said that Congress was powerless to exclude a slavery from a free state.  This satisfied no one.  By the end of 1860 South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and finally Texas had seceded for the Union and proclaimed ‘the Confederate States of America.’”
            That last sentence is a complete non-sequitur.  McCrum has just gotten done describing two legal decisions which benefited the slave states, then, abruptly, without any transition, he announces that the slave states seceded from the Union.  The reason they seceded from the Union was not because the Supreme Court ruled in their favor.

* From the same page, 117, “What sustained and united the South was not its defence of the indefensible (slavery), but its ancestral passion for a way of life, a homeland and a habit of being.”
            This is a questionable.  Many historians argue that the Civil War was fought precisely because of Slavery.  (See, for example, Dr. Miller’s thought on the subject HERE). 
            The south seceded because President Lincoln won the election on a platform of creating no more slave states in the Union but allowing the existing states to continue as normal.  One wonders how the South’s “habit of being” would have been in any way endangered by accepting that no more slave states were to be created.

* In describing Mark Twain’s biography, McCrum states on page 121 that Twain was born in 1835.
            On the following page (122), McCrum states, “When the Civil War put an end to riverboat gambling, the riotous society of hustlers, quack doctors, itinerant preachers and highfalutin Midwesterners, young Clemens [Mark Twain]—scarcely eighteen—left the river and set off west into a kind of lifelong exile.
            The American Civil War started in 1861.  If Mark Twain was born in 1835, how could he have been scarcely 18 by 1861?

* From page 136: “There was now a market for popular renderings of the African-American experience in which the ‘Negro’ dialect of American English was not just of sociological interests.  Thanks to the Civil War, it found a mass audience in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe."
            The popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is often cited as one of the causes of the Civil War.  The Civil War was not the reason Uncle Tom’s Cabin became popular.  McCrum has his cause and effect mixed up.

* From page 138: “Now white American began the appropriation of African words and style: jazz, the blues, ragtime, boogie woogie, rock ‘n’ roll (in music); the cakewalk, the jitterbug, breakdancing (in dance); and cool, jive, hip and heavy (in slang).”
            Yeah, I’m fairly sure most of these words are of Anglo-Saxon origin, not African words.  The fact that in African-American slang they acquired a different meaning does not actually mean they were African words.  What I think McCrum is trying to say is that white America started appropriating the slang of black America, but that’s different than saying these were originally African words.

* From page 142: “so to young Americans he [Barak Obama] offers ‘change we can believe in’; to African-Americans, he becomes the symbol of their struggle for recognition; across the world, he embodies a version of America everyone can identify with—even the Irish, who composed a ballad in his honour, claiming a shared inheritance.
            Obama offers a version of America the whole world can identify with—even the Irish?!  Why “even” the Irish?
            I ran this sentence by an Irish co-worker, and he was as confused by it as I was.  “We Irish almost always support the American President,” he said.  “I mean we didn’t like Bush, but then no one liked Bush.  But we liked Clinton.  We liked Reagan.  We loved Kennedy.  It doesn’t make any sense that he would write ‘even the Irish’.”
            I suspect what McCrum wanted to write was something like “especially the Irish” or “notably the Irish”, but he got sloppy.

* From page 148: When describing Johnson’s Dictionary, McCrum writes: “Every line of the Dictionary was imbued with a witty, popular, and democratic spirit.”
            This is McCrum again asserting that English is inherently democratic, but even if you accept his premise, it’s still quite a statement.  Every line” had a democratic spirit?  Every line??
            It’s even more of a stretch when we consider that Johnson had some views that would be considered a little bit embarrassing in a modern democratic society.  Boswell in his famous description of his first meeting with Johnson, records Johnson’s antipathy towards the Scots.
            Ironically, the very next lines McCrum quotes to illustrate Johnson’s democratic spirit seem instead to be more illustrative of his attitude towards Scotsman.  Lines 20-24 of page 148 in fact read in full:
            “Every line of the Dictionary was imbued with a witty, popular, and democratic spirit.
            LEXICOGRAPHER: A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.
            OATS: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

* 149: “In France, an authorized process of writing a national dictionary codified, solidified and ultimately fossilized the language.  For English, the dictionary process achieved the exact opposite: it gave expression to its contagious adaptability, catchy-populism and innate subversiveness. French might be the language of international relations, but its potential as a world language would remain circumscribed by custom, temperament and philosophical reference.
            Maybe some of my French-speaking friends could help me out here, but I’m fairly sure this isn’t true.  My impression was that the French academy attempts to impose some conservative restrictions on the rules of French, but on the streets French evolves just as naturally as any other living language.

* On page 155, when describing Jonathon Swift, McCrum writes: “Swift is best remembered today as the author of Gulliver’s Travels.”
            Honestly?  Come on, everyone already knows this!  (Much of this book reads like a remedial high school English class.  McCrum spends a lot of time on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Johnson and Swift without really telling me much I didn’t learn in high school.)

* McCrum devotes about 3 pages to Voltaire (156-158), in which his only point is to illustrate that Voltaire really liked English.  Then he talks about how love of the English culture and language (Anglomanie) developed in the French court and, he implies the English language was responsible for democratic political changes in France.
            From page 157: “But ‘Anglomanie’ lingered at the court of Louis XVI, where it was fashionable to parade occasional snippets of English vocabulary.  There was also a frisson, out of the king’s earshot, attached to uttering radical new words like vote, opposition, jury, pamphlet, constitution. The king even translated some passages from Milton, and is said to have studied the history of the Stuarts while awaiting his rendezous with the guillotine.
            —Okay, first of all, some of these radical new English words McCrum thinks are altering French politics are actually French words in origin, like “constitution” or “opposition”.  (I’m really at a loss as to how this book went to print with glaring errors like this.) And while I'm harping on this, it's worth mentioning that except for a brief time during the Republican Commonwealth period, England has never had a constitution either.  So I'm not sure where McCrum gets off attributing constitution to Anglomanie.
            Secondly, Louis XVI in his last days did make a serious study of the Stuart king Charles I (not the Stuart kings in general), but it was not because of Anglomanie.  It was because he found himself in the exact same position that Charles I had been in 100 years before (about to get his head chopped off by a revolutionary republican government), and he knew it.

* Pages 158-160 revisit Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary, a subject McCrum had already touched on 10 pages before (see my notes above on page 148).  This shows very poor organization. He should have put all his thoughts on Samuel Johnson together in the same section, not wander off for 10 pages to talk about Voltaire and Louis XVI, and then return to Samuel Johnson.

* Page 167 talks about the French Revolution: “At first, the French Revolution renewed ancestral Gallic ambitions and, in opposition, stimulated a bruising nationalist temper in Britain. Loyalist mobs yelled slogans like, ‘Church and King’, ‘No Popery’ and ‘No Black Bread’. When, after the shocking execution of Louis XVI, France declared War on Britain (and Holland), traditional roles were reversed.
             Does anyone have any idea what he’s talking about?  What were the “ancestral Gallic ambitions” that the French Revolution renewed?  He can’t be talking about the military ambitions of the Napoleonic  period, because he is clearly talking about before the execution of Louis XVI.  So in the very early days of the French revolution, just what ancestral Gallic ambitions is he referring to?

* On page 169 he continues to talk about the French Revolution: “The conventional wisdom in London was that the French would simply follow the example of the Anglo-Saxon world, so successfully pioneered during the preceding century.  Later down the same page: “But the Revolution was French, not British: there was no appetite for compromise.”
            After describing the failure of the French Revolution to achieve British sensibility and moderation, he continues on the following page 170, describing how a British cricket match in Paris was cancelled because of the Revolution: “So the French Revolution was denied the example of British fair play…. Culturally speaking, French would be the language of international relations, but its influence would always be top-down and not, like English, bottom up.”
            He’s once again advancing his thesis that the English world and the English language is the home of everything reasonable and good, and that France is the home of everything unreasonable.  Even when the French have a republican revolution, they can’t seem to handle it with reasonableness, like the British did.
            When he talks about the reforms the British so successfully pioneered in the 17th century, he’s referring of course to the Glorious Revolution in 1688.  And this one isolated event was free of bloodshed and reasonable, if you simply focus on 1688 and ignore everything else that happened in Britain in the 17th century.
            The initial attempt at governmental reform 50 years earlier caused decades of bloody civil wars, and ended with an English king beheaded in by a republican government just like the republican French were to do later.  (The main sin of the French, it would seem, was to behead their own king 150 years later after the English decided regicide had gone out of fashion.)
            It is true that there was never a systematic terror under English republicans like there was under the French republicans.  But the English monarchy displayed quite a knack for retributive terror when it came back into power.  The former regicides were given sham trials, and then condemned to be hanged but not until dead, because while they were still living they had their bowels cut out in front of them and were emasculated, and only then had their heads chopped off (and then were cut into four pieces).  It was a punishment specifically designed to be as cruel as possible, and in comparison the French guillotine actually looks quite appealing.
            The cruelty of the English monarchy, and its penchant for systematic terror, was also seen in the prelude to the Glorious Revolution, Monmouth’s rebellion.  After which James II and Judge Jeffreys presided over the Bloody Assizes (W).
            Although the Glorious Revolution itself happened with no losses of life, it set in motion the Jacobite Wars, which were to result in terrific slaughters in Scotland and Ireland.  (I have a Scottish friend who asserts what the English did to the Scottish Highlanders at  Culloden in the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion was pure genocide).  Not to mention the centuries of religious wars in Ireland set off by the battle of Boyne.  (And that’s not even counting the near genocidal campaign in Ireland by the English republicans under Cromwell.)
            ….So, yes, the French Revolution got a little bit out of control for a couple years, but the English have no business claiming the moral high ground on reasonableness when it comes to democratic reform.  Their own history is just as bloody.

* On page 172, when describing Charles Dickens’ book A Child’s History, McCrum writes: “Work on A Child’s History came to a halt in December 1853 when his narrative arrived at the independence of the United States.   This, he wrote, swallowing his antipathy, was ‘one of the greatest nations on earth.’
            I’m confused.  Did his work come to a halt then or didn’t it?  How could it come to a halt if he continued writing?

*On page 180: “The Calcutta Cricket Club was founded in 1792, on the site of the present-day Eden Gardens stadium, more or less contemporaneously with the MCC, a matter of some dispute.”
            I’m confused again.  What’s a matter of some dispute?  That the Club was founded in 1792?  Or that it’s at the present day Eden Gardens stadium?  Or that it’s contemporaneously with the MCC?
            And why it is in dispute?  He never explains this, and goes onto something else in the next sentence.

* Page 193: “Her [Victoria’s] son Edward VII’s reign began in a mood of obsessive national self-excoriation.  The army was incompetent, the navy was obsolete, the game was up for the empire, and Britain’s traditional European enemies, led by Germany, were planning to invade.”
            Does anyone know what he is talking about?  Was there a plot by all of Britain’s enemies to invade at the start of Edward VII’s reign?  I’ve never heard this before.
            And furthermore, Germany was not one of Britain’s traditional enemies.  Germany didn’t even exist until 1871.  And even before that, the various Germanic states from which Germany was formed had been more likely to be Britain’s allies than enemies.  In fact Britain’s royal family came from these Germanic states.
            Up until the World Wars, Britain’s traditional enemy had always been France, not Germany, something McCrum himself acknowledges on the very next page.  From page 194: “the traditional enemy (France) had been replaced by a new, navel foe, Germany.  
            (And while I’m nitpicking, I’m not sure about his comma placement in the above sentence. “new, naval foe, Germany”.)

* Page 195.  When talking about World War I, McCrum writes, “a European war conducted in German quickly became a world war conducted in half a dozen of the world’s oldest languages: Japanese, Russian, French, Italian, Chinese—and English.
            It’s unclear to me exactly what he means when he says “oldest languages.”  Since no language sprang spontaneously out of nowhere, every language has ancient roots that can be traced.  English can be traced to its Danish, Germanic, and Norman roots.  Italian and French can be traced to their Latin roots.  So in that sense every language is a very old language.  But then in that sense the comparative term “oldest languages” becomes meaningless.
            If you are trying to make a comparison between the world’s oldest languages, English would not be on the list.  Modern English as we know it today did not emerge until the middle ages, and is a fusion of other European languages (as McCrum knows because he described this process earlier in the same book.)
            Chinese may well be one of the world’s oldest languages.  (Putting aside for the moment the fact that there really is no such thing as “Chinese” but just several different languages and mutually unintelligible dialects inside of China.)  But China wasn't involved in World War I. 

* On page 220-222, McCrum talks about how the CIA took control of the American film industry in the 1950s to help Hollywood produce films that promoted American values, like “freedom” and “militant liberty”.  These films then helped to spread American culture and values all over the world.
            I don’t doubt for one minute this is true, but it’s something I find disturbing rather than praise worthy.  I’m not sure exactly where McCrum stands on this.  He never outright states his opinions on the “CIA and its covert programme of ‘Militant Liberty’”, but his thesis throughout the book has been that the spread of English goes hand in hand with the spread of freedom and democracy, so I almost wonder if he sees this CIA propagandizing as a positive tool.
            Just for the record: when a government covertly uses the entertainment industry to propagandize its own citizens (and abroad) and the citizens are not informed about what is happening, this is not freedom and democracy in action.

* Page 224: “After the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the Cold War moved into a more stable phase, the United States (but not Britain) fought the threat of Communism in South-East Asia. Britain, meanwhile, had divested itself of almost all its colonial possessions, letting the ‘winds of change’ blow through Africa.
            We now know, since the release of the Pentagon Papers, that the USA was actually not that concerned about whether small rice farming villages in Vietnam went Communist or not, and that instead the wars in South-East Asia were fought to protect America’s international credibility.
            But leave that aside.  What really bugged me about this sentence is the idea that Britain “had divested itself” itself of its colonial possessions, as if this were taken entirely on the initiative of Britain.  In actuality, in some of these African colonies Britain’s hand was forced by local rebellions against British authority.

* On page 230: When describing the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of the United States as the world’s sole super-power: “Finally, the collapse of the USSR did not see the United States step forward as an ambitious or sophisticated global power on the Roman, French, or British model.  In so far as the United States exercised global leadership in international relations, it was confined to farcical interludes, like the Parsley Crisis.
            He then goes onto describe the Parsley Crisis, apparently a dispute between Spain and Morocco in 2002(W).
            Is he seriously trying to argue that from 1989 to 2002 the United States did not get involved in international politics except for “farcical” little interludes “like the Parsley Crisis”?
            Do I even need to make a list of all the places we bombed, and all the places we sent troops, and one or two wars we were involved in during this period?

* On page 239: When talking about English’s influence in Japan: “Some of the influence flowed outward: terms like CD, DVD, and Walkman originate in Japan’s high-tech breakthroughs of the 1980s, which also generated quasi-English brand names like Panasonic, Sony and Pioneer.”
            Panasonic and Sony actually sound to me like they were more influenced by classical languages (Greek and Latin) than by English.

* From the same page, 239, a little further down.
            In Peter Carey’s Wrong about Japan, the writer meets a teenage Japanese named Takashi in Starbucks, and has this exchange.
            ‘You like muffin?’ asks Takashi. ‘Miruku?’
            The u ending suggested an English word recently adopted by the Japanese, but in the case of ‘milk’, that made no sense at all, so I asked Takashi was there no other word for ‘milk’.
            ‘Oh yes, of course.’
            ‘So why do you call it miruku?’
            ‘Miruku is more modern.’
            ‘But what’s the matter with the other word?’
            ‘Not so hygenic’
            ‘How is that?’
            ‘The other word is gyuunyuu.’ He wrinkled his nose.  ‘It means liquid from udder. Miruku is better.’
            Okay, so this whole thing is just wrong.  And I realize that McCrum is quoting from another writer here, but he obviously didn’t bother fact checking this at all before he put it in his book.
            First of all, since Takashi also says the words “you”, “like”, and “muffin” in English, it’s not particularly clear why Peter Carey is so surprised that he also uses the English word for “milk.”
            On the other hand, neither McCrum nor his source Peter Carey give any indication that this conversation is translated from Japanese. So the natural assumption is that they’re speaking in English, right?
            If the conversation took place in English it’s hard to make sense of, but I think Peter Carey is claiming that Takashi pronounced the words “you like muffin” in perfectly good English, but the added extra u sounds in “miruku” were so audible that they set off Peter Carey’s linguistic detective ears.  Peter Carey naturally concluded that “you like muffin” were pronounced correctly because they had been learned as English words, whereas “miruku” had first been learned as a Japanese word, so the extra u sounds were now an acquired habit that stuck even when Takashi was speaking English.  (I think that’s what he’s implying.)
            Except that anyone familiar with Japanese-English knows that added u sounds get put in all the time, so this would not catch your ear if you were in Japan.  If you didn’t know any better, you’d have no reason to assume from extra vowel sounds that any particular English word had been adopted into Japanese.
            I suspect this conversation is apocryphal.  Peter Carey knew all along that “miruku” was a Japanese word, but he just needed to invent some anecdote to put it into his book.  As someone who’s lived in Japan for 8 years, the conversation just doesn’t pass my smell test. I can’t prove anything, but it just doesn’t sound like how a Japanese teenager would express himself.  If Takashi knows the words for “hygenic” (sic) and “udder”, and can immediately recall them in conversation, then he’s got a much higher English vocabulary than the average Japanese person.  Which I guess isn’t completely impossible, but then it makes you wonder why he can’t speak in better formed sentences. (“Would you like a muffin?” for example.)
            If, on the other hand, this conversation is taking place in Japanese, then it makes you wonder why Peter Carey has chosen to translate Takashi’s words in such idiomatic English.  And then it also means that Peter Carey now knows the Japanese words for “hygenic” (sic) and “udder”, which means he’s well past asking stupid questions about whether or not the Japanese have a word for milk.
            (As for why “hygenic” [hygienic] is spelled wrong in the above quote, I have no idea. Is it the fault of McCrum or the source Peter Carrey?)
            More importantly, the Japanese word gyuunyuu does not, absolutely not, mean “liquid from udder.”  Gyuu means cow in Japanese, and nyuu means milk.  Nyuu can be attatched to different prefixes to indicate the source of the milk, In the same way bounyuu means mother’s milk in Japanese, and tounyuu means soy milksomething completely unconnected to udders at all.
            There are reasons that Takashi feels more comfortable using the word miruku in this situation, but it has nothing to do with hygiene.
            Although English loan words are in some senses associate with modernity in Japan, they are also more likely to be used in what are perceived as Western contexts.  Inside of a Starbucks it is called miruku, in daily school lunches and the supermarkets it is still referred to as gyuunyuu. Also, given the choice between an English loan word and a pure Japanese word, a Japanese speaker is much more likely to choose the English loan word when talking to an English speaker.

From page 240: “Since 2001 young Japanese have begun to display a less uncertain response to the impact of English, which is now generally welcomed as an essential element in Japan’s interaction with the Anglo-American hegemony.”
            This sentence is a little bit hard to process, but I think it reads a little smoother if you substitute “more certain” when he says “less uncertain”.
            Strange, 2001 was the year I arrived in Japan.  I was completely unaware I was witnessing a sea-change in the attitudes of young Japanese towards English. 
            Seriously though, why 2001?   What happened that year?  McCrum never even bothers to explain this.

* From page 243: “In China today, for instance, the popularity of the BlackBerry has had a dynamic, transformational effect on upwardly mobile, middle-class Chinese who have enthusiastically embraced Globish [Global English] to exploit the opportunities of the BlackBerry keypad. Before the advent of the BlackBerry, Rob Gifford, author of China Road, described Chinese texting as follows: ‘write the character you want in romanised letters (mao, xia, zu, wang, or whatever), then hit Return, and a selection of all the characters that fit that sound comes up, and you highlight the one you want, and hit Return again. It’s laborious but the best way to do it for a non-alphabetical language.’”
            Okay, first thing to point out is that McCrum is getting confused here between texting and typing.  When you text messages on your phone, there is no Return key.  I suspect he’s taking a sentence from his source that refers to keyboard typing, and then inserting it (wrongly) into a context about phone texting.
            By the way, this was (and still is) the way Japanese people write on a keyboard as well.  It is extremely laborious for a foreigner (it’s why it takes me so long to write an e-mail in Japanese.)  The Japanese natives in my old office, however, were able to do it pretty quickly.  I’m assuming the same thing would be true in China.
            How exactly this problem is solved by BlackBerry is never explained.  Presumably BlackBerry must have some different type of keyboard interface, but McCrum never explains this at all.

* From page 251: “And in Beijing, the renewal of the capital has been compared, inadequately, to Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris after the 1848 revolutions.
            Haussmann rebuilt Paris in the 1860s.  Technically this is after 1848 (in the sense that every year following is technically after) but why not just say 1860s?

* From page 254: When talking about Chinese potential as an international language, McCrum quotes a source as saying: “Until [the authorities] do something about the 60,000 Chinese characters which an educated person is supposed to learn (as they did in Vietnam), I don’t think it’s ever going to change places with English.
            The Vietnamese authorities did not do away with the native writing system.  It was the French authorities.  (The long and sustained attempt by which the French finally got Roman letters to replace Asian letters in Vietnam is detailed in The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia by Milton E. Osborne.)  Now, it is true that once the French had finally succeeded in making the change, the Vietnamese nationalists did adopt it because they found it was easier to spread mass literacy (and communist propaganda) with a simplified writing system.
            But I think the point still needs to be made—no Asian country has ever given up their traditional writing system on their own initiative.  As difficult as it is to learn the languages, too much Chinese (and Japanese) culture and traditional literature and poems are tied up in their writing system.

*From page 256: “Now, in the twenty-first century, the challenge for China will be to integrate Globish [Global English] values into the alien matrix of the Chinese tradition. Some commentators, like the (London) Observer’s Will Hutton, do not believe it can be done.  In The Writing on the Wall, Hutton declares: ‘for all China’s success to date, ultimately the system that the communists have created is structurally unstable.’”
            Well, I don’t doubt it, but why?  McCrum drops this quote here, and then just moves on to another topic without explaining why.
            The very next sentence starts out: “China’s ‘new left’, who support the market reforms inaugurated by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, disagree with this bleak diagnosis, which they see as uninformed…”
            Well, how about explaining what the diagnosis is first?  Why does Hutton believe China is structurally unstable?

* From page 285: “For as long as the peoples of the world wish to express themselves in terms of ideas like ‘freedom’, ‘individuality’ and ‘originality’, and for as long as there are generations of the world’s schoolchildren versed in Shakespeare, The Simpsons, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bible, Globish [Global English] will remain the means by which an educated minority of the planet communicates.
            Okay, when he’s talking about the universal appeal of the English language, I’ll give him Shakespeare, and the Declaration of Independence.
            The Simpsons, I’ve learned, is very popular abroad in other English speaking countries (England, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand) but it’s a satire show, and if you don’t have a shared common knowledge about what is being satirized the humour can’t work.  So, after years of trying and failing to get Japanese friends into The Simpson, I’ve reluctantly concluded that The Simpsons will never be popular in Asia.
            But the Bible?
            The Bible is a strange addition to this list anyway.  Shakespeare and the Declaration of Independence may resonate across cultural boundaries, but the appeal of the Bible is limited in traditionally Hindu or Buddhist countries.  You can’t just casually drop it into a list of global English’s greatest hits without getting into a partisan religious debate.
            But even that aside, he knows that the Bible isn’t English, right?  That for centuries people have read the Bible in French, English, Italian and German without benefit of the English language?
            He does know this, doesn’t he?
            He commits a similar mistake on pages 89-90.  He acknowledges the English Bible is a translation, but then goes onto praise English for the poetical beauty of Biblical passages (John 1, and Ecclesiastes).  I suspect these passages would retain their poetry whatever language they were translated in.
            (Ma Barker, the governor of Texas politician, once said (allegedly-w) in a debate about bilingual education “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, than it ought to be good enough for the school children of Texas.”  McCrum is dangerously close to expressing the same sentiment.)

* Further down the page on 285, he takes some more shots at the French.  The French state and its culture feel challenged by the irreverence and ebullience of the Anglo-American tradition and its values, and France make periodic attempts to keep ‘airport English’ at bay.  This is a far cry from the days of the Enlightenment, a formidably French movement which once gave western society’s quest for happiness, welfare, prosperity and good government a powerful sense of purpose, inspiring America’s Founding Fathers. France still identifies with progress, but it has grown out of sympathy with the medium in which that progress is expressed.”
            So, is he implying that global progress is now linked only with English, and because the French don’t speak English they can not fully participate in progress?

* Page 287. He is describing a soccer game in which Iraq beat Saudi Arabia in 2007.  He closes out the book with these words: “On this occasion, Taha Mahmoud, a twenty-five-year-old computer programmer, was reported to have expressed a perfect Globish [Global English] sentiment: “In 90 minutes, eleven men on a soccer pitch thousands of miles away have made millions of Iraqis happy while 250 MPs, our government, the mullahs, imams, and warlords can’t provide us with a single smile. I hope,’ he concluded, ‘that this is a turning-point for our country.’”
            What exactly any of this has to do with Global English is unclear to me.

* And other complaints
            After going off on a long digression about the history of Anglo-American culture, McCrum finally returns to the subject of Global English in his last couple chapters.  Except he doesn’t really.  He fills most of his space talking about globalization, and international commerce instead, and then trying to connect this to Global English almost as an afterthought.    
            In the sections describing globalization, McCrum borrows heavily from Thomas Friedman’s analysis, and Friedman’s “The World is Flat” model.
            Because of this, it grates on my ear a little bit when McCrum repeatedly using Thomas Friedman’s metaphor for a flat earth throughout the book.

Why I Read This Book
          I was complaining to a friend about how bad this book was, and he asked me the perfectly reasonable question, “Well why do you keep reading it then?”
            The reason is because I’ve recently made a commitment to myself to try and read 10 pages a day of some sort of book related to professional development.  Since the last book I read was quite difficult, I wanted to reward myself with some lighter reading.
            My local bookstore had a small section devoted to popular books on language, and I thought I might take a small break by reading a less academic book.  I was hoping that it might teach me a useful thing or two and be a fun easy read at the same time. 
            For the purposes of this project, I had committed myself to finishing the books I started.  So I stuck with this book even after I realized I wasn’t going to get much out of it.
            In fairness, I have to admit it was a pretty easy read.  I was able to get my 10 pages a day in pretty painlessly. 
            I didn’t learn a single useful thing from this book, however.  But perhaps my expectations (that this book would be useful for me as an English teacher) were what lead me to be so bitterly disappointed?
            Perhaps.  If you read this book with low expectation, just using it to kill time in the airport or something, maybe you wouldn’t think it is that bad.
            On the other hand, a number of people on seem to have had similar reactions to me (A). 
Well, it wasn't a great book. It wasn't bad, but it had very little depth. A substantial portion of it was just a review of basic history, such as a description of Shakespeare's contributions or a restatement of one of Thomas Friedman's notions - and then with a tacked-on explanation of how it related to the development of Globish. The real mechanics of the process of English's evolution was seldom touched except in the most common way (i.e. a reminder that our most-used words all come from the Old). This was disappointing - I was hoping for something a little more scholarly and new. I was also disappointed in a similar way in the sections on the modern use of Globish - we are given only some light anecdotes reviewing the familiar trends of campus-educated Indians making the language their own and growing into a niche. It was about as innovative as last night's PB&J sandwich.In short, this would probably be a great book for beginners and people unfamiliar with the things being discussed. If you weren't aware that Shakespeare coined a lot of words and that shucks we still use them today, then this is for you. But if you want something innovative and deeper, then save your money. Or I guess bring it to the beach.

My thoughts exactly.

There is nothing particularly wrong with Robert McCrum's new book, "Globish". In fact there are many good points he makes about the spread of English around the globe over the centuries. But I came away from the end wondering about what this book was intended to be. It certainly wasn't about the English language, as a language.

For an historian, as McCrum is, I wonder where his proofreaders are....he gets the years of the battle of Gettysburg and FDR's inauguration wrong. As someone who collaborated on the terrific series, "The Story of English", I can't imagine that this book has as much disconnect as it does with the language, itself.

I agree.  This book reads as if no one had bothered to proof read it at all, and certainly no one put any effort into fact checking him.

Terrible book, I can't believe I plowed all the way through it. It perpetrates a fraud on the reader, claiming to have something to do with the spread of English as an international language, while it's really a rambling, disjointed, incoherent jumble of passages loosely related to the development and spread of Anglo-American culture. It reads like a first draft, or perhaps a mind dump to which some editor added a title instead of forcing the author to rewrite the text around some kind of unifying theme.
Again, I agree.

This is just a small sampling.  You can read other bad reviews on the amazon site yourself if you're interested, but you get the point.
Strangely enough, though, all the professional reviews of this book in newspapers and magazines that I could find were very kind to McCrum.  I wonder why that is.  Naturally there's no accounting for taste, but I'm wondering why the professional reviewers didn't go after the obvious flaws in this book a bit more.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: 'No individual changes anything alone'

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