Robert McCrum’s new book Globish, about how English is becoming the world language because it’s so “unique” and “direct” and “universal” and what have you, has gotten a well-deserved thrashing from linguist John McWhorter in The New Republic. After some nice bits of paralipsis, or, if you prefer, preterition (“Never mind overall that a considerable proportion of the text is breezy recapitulation of English and American history with brief asides about implications for the development of English… And never mind the endless misinterpretations and downright solecisms….”), he gets down to the meat of his attack:
But the central problem is that McCrum’s sense that English is somehow uniquely “direct” and “universal” and therefore well-suited to bestride the world is false. In two ways.
First of all, to the extent that McCrum is taking this from English being light on conjugation suffixes (in the present, just little third-person singular –s) and not having gender (no el sombrero for hat but la luna for moon as in Spanish), you can’t claim that this makes it easier for a language to be universal without looking at the fate of other languages. [McWhorter uses the “murderously complex” Russian as a counterexample.]
Then McCrum errs in a second way. He misses that to the extent that geopolitical dominance and linguistic structure can be correlated, it’s in that the dominance causes the grammatical simplification, not the other way around.[…] McCrum knows this – but misses that it upends his paradigm. The Vikings didn’t pick up English because it was enticingly “universal” – they made it easier by picking it up.
He goes on to explain why “Globish reinforces some questionable ways of thinking about language.” It’s a good demolition job that I commend to your attention. (Joel at Far Outliers points out a minor error: “Unfortunately, McWhorter confuses Papua New Guinea, where Tok Pisin is the lingua franca, with Papua, where Indonesian is the lingua franca. Otherwise, he’s right on target.”)