GLOBISH.

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.”)

Comments

  1. If the Vikings we probably would have gotten rid of a lot more useless shit. But they had irregular verbs too, rather similar to ours. The bastards.

  2. If the Vikings HAD BEEN FINNS we probably would have gotten rid of a lot more useless shit. But the Vikings had irregular verbs too, rather similar to ours. The bastards.

  3. The Russians seem to be living. Am I wrong?

  4. Noetica says:

    “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.”

    This seems now to have altered in that post: “… West Papua (formerly West Irian), where Indonesian is the lingua franca.” Well it might be. That country has borne several names, and the matter is still confused.
    Readers outside the region may not know the human-rights story, which continues raw and flagrant even now. The present political arrangement results from a gerrymandered referendum in favour of Indonesian sovereignty, in which the nations of the world were complicit by their inaction.
    I know LH is not concerned with politics, but since the distribution of linguae francae and pidgins is inseparable from colonial and postcolonial abuses, I feel obliged to make all of this plain for the record.

  5. Thanks, I welcome that kind of historical clarification.

  6. McCrum in his book Globish errs with his notion that the linguistic characteristics of a language have an influence on whether it becomes a world language or not. English became a world language because of these two reasons: the British Empire, and the American economic and political predominance of the last century.
    Economic and political power determine which cultures and languages gain the upper hand, whether we are talking about Latin during the Roman Empire or Russian in Soviet controlled Eastern Europe.
    There is one case where McCrum’s idea may have some bearing: the linguistic nature of Mandarin Chinese (more specifically its complexity) will ensure that it will never become a world language, even though China will continue to dominate the world economically. The Chinese language is as beautiful and useful as any language – but the average world citizen will not have the dedication to learn but a few phrases of the language.

  7. Um, mike, did you read any of this stuff?
    Spoken Chinese isn’t that hard, but the written language is impossible. But within the Chinese-dominated zone many foreigners do learn Chinese. It’s just that American English is the international language in most of the world.

  8. Wimbrel says:

    What could McWhorter have meant in this passage about two thirds of the way down, in a passage about Whorf-Sapir:
    …such as one case where we were to suppose that a Native American group were especially fond of slurping and sucking on things!

  9. By McCrum’s standards Japanese should be the world language – it is easy to pronounce, fairly regular grammar, no irregular verbs, gender or declensions. It borrows very easily from foreign languages, and has multiple layers of vocab (native Japanese-Chinese-Dutch/English) just like English (Anglosaxon- Latin – French).

  10. Ken Robbins says:

    Dear Language Hat,
    I am off-topic here, I know, but I am assured by my nephew, Jim Salant, (who did me the great favor of putting me on to you and your commentariat) that that’s not particularly a sin around here. In any case I thought to break my lurk with a request for comments about a book I’ve been reading and enjoying. It’s called Wordly Wise, by James McDonald – an extended series of interwoven etymological riffs, organized loosely around around Large Cultural Themes, like War, Religion, Scatology, Sex, etc. The book is marvelously entertaining and seemingly quite erudite (with scholarly looking appendices), but it has nevertheless begun to arouse my suspicions with regard to the Dreadful Trap of Folk (i.e. unsupported) Etymology.
    Since I am often unable to resist my shameful penchant for dropping etymological nuggets into otherwise untroubled social conversation, and since I share with Jim a compulsive (if sometimes futile) desire to avoid being thought a fool by my betters, would anybody familiar with the book in question care to comment on its general reliability as a source of knowledge? Thanks.

  11. ignoramus says:

    money talks

  12. Any relative of Jim’s is welcome here. If only we all had uncles who comment on things we find interesting. I see Worldly Wise is out of print, but it’s available pretty cheaply via Bookfinder.

  13. dearieme says:

    As you age you run out of uncles, I find. Even aunts.

  14. Welcome, Ken! I’m afraid I don’t know the book, but you’re right to be suspicious of anything that smells like Folk Etymology. You should check anything that rouses your suspicions with Merriam-Webster’s and the Online Etymology Dictionary, both of which are pretty reliable; if McDonald diverges from them, he’s probably wrong. If he does it too often, you have my permission to throw the book at the wall with an imprecation; you should also feel free to e-mail me with whatever questions may arise.

  15. Globish reminds me of another failed project called “Basic English” which failed, because native English speakers could not remember which words not to use :)
    So it’s time to move forward and adopt a neutral non-national language, taught universally in schools worldwide,in all nations. As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto
    Your readers may be interested in the following video at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.
    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  16. komfo,amonan says:

    I always reckoned that the leveling of Old English inflections was due not so much to the Vikings as to the speakers of the Brythonic languages, who, I think, greatly outnumbered the Saxon overlords who imposed it on them even by the completion of the conquest in ca 650.
    Also, Esperantists generate an awful lot of spam. Just sayin’.

  17. Experts, experts everywhere, and not a moment’s rest. They tell us to speak one language instead of another, eat these substances instead of those, act this way instead of that … A disposition to urge other people to change their behavior could be an Anthropological Constant. If this turns out to be a momentous discovery, remember to mention my name when you pass it along.
    What can we imagine to be the evolutionary advantages of this imperious meliorism ? Perhaps there aren’t any. The only offhand explanation I can think of for the phenomenon itself is longevity overhang. By that I mean this. We may assume that fathers and mothers have always told their kids how to behave. Over many millenia, the average lifespan was only 35 or so. By the time parents were no longer able to tell their kids what do to – when the kids became adolescent and would no longer listen – the parents just died. But as life expectancy increased, there were more and more parents left with time and wisdom on their hands, since the captive audience had flown the coop. This was the birth of bossiness.
    Of course this tendency expresses itself in different ways. Some old people get a pet, others get a license to practice psychological counselling, still others learn Esperanto.

  18. michael farris says:

    Please note: Not all of us who know and use Esperanto are spam generating kooks.
    That is all.

  19. michael farris says:

    While here, add me to those who don’t understand why this guy is using the name Globish which is a trademark name for a kind of approach to English teaching and learning.
    The trademark Globish is kind of like Basic English and shares its main faults. I don’t understand these approaches that first seek to limit vocabulary and use ridiculous workarounds like ‘the other children of my parents’ instead of ‘siblings’ or even ‘brothers and sisters’ or replaces ‘mouse’ with ‘small animal that eats cheese’ (both examples from trademark Globish).
    Using some kind of codification of actual functional but not fluent ESL as the basis for a curriculum makes some sense (especially for the great majority of learners who don’t profit from traditional courses). But trademark Globish isn’t it.

  20. Bathrobe says:

    Well, Globish is culturally biased. There is a very popular Chinese pop song that goes:
    我爱你爱着你就像老鼠爱大米.
    Wǒ ài nǐ, ài-zhe nǐ, jiù xiàng lǎoshǔ ài dàmǐ.
    ‘I love you, love you, just like a mouse loves rice’.

  21. Noetica,
    The western half of the large island of New Guinea has indeed been known by many names over the years: Irian Jaya, West Irian, West Papua, and it has now been split into two Indonesian provinces: West Papua and Papua. But it’s never, ever been known as Papua New Guinea, which was the union of the formerly British southeast and formerly German northeast quarters of the island of New Guinea. That’s why I clarified the names.
    On your other point: Yes, the politics of the western half of the island of the island of New Guinea are even sadder than those of the eastern half.
    On Esperanto: It may be a very suitable international language for Indo-Europhones, but not so much for the rest of the world.

  22. McCrum sounds a bit like Antoine de Rivarol, who claimed in his Discours sur l’Universalité de la langue française (1783) that French had become a universal language because of its intrinsic merits (e.g. its “subject-verb-object” word order follows the “logic natural to all men” – French syntax is “incorruptible”). Rivarol also explained why English would never attain such a position (England is too out of the way for travellers to visit; English vocabulary is not Latinate enough, so it’s too difficult for speakers of Romance languages to remember; English syntax is “bizarre”). He also told us why Shakespeare would never become an internationally read author.

  23. JCass, we discovered last year Here at Hat that these ideas are rather older than Rivarol’s prize essay. At the very end of the 1660 Grammaire générale et raisonnée, Arnauld/Lancelot wrote this:

    La façon de parler qui a quelques mots de plus qu’il ne faut s’appelle PLÉONASME, ou Abondance; comme, vivere vitam, magis maior, etc.

    Et celle qui renverse l’ordre naturel des du discours, s’appelle HYPERBATE, ou Renversement.

    On peut voir des exemples de toutes ces figures dans les Grammaires des langues particulières, et surtout dans les Nouvelles Méthodes que l’on a faites pour la grecque et pour la latine, où on en a parlé amplement.

    J’ajouterai seulement qu’il n’y a guère de langue qui use moins de ces figures que la nôtre, parce qu’elle aime particulièrement la netteté, et à exprimer les choses autant qu’il se peut, dans l’ordre le plus naturel et le plus désembarrassé, quoiqu’en même temps elle ne cède à aucune en beauté ni en élégance.

  24. That should be l’ordre naturel du discours, not le plus naturel.

  25. ‘Small animal that eats cheese’ is a dog, dogs love it. Mice don’t particularly like cheese. Goats are vegans.

  26. Stu,
    A disposition to urge other people to change their behavior could be an Anthropological Constant.
    And the true root of all evil. I hereby propose the foundation of a new religious/political/social movement with one commandment/principle only: Thou shalt get off thy neighbor’s back.
    michael,
    Please note: Not all of us who know and use Esperanto are spam generating kooks.
    Point taken. About ‘spam-generating’, that is, I’m still on the fence when it comes to ‘kooks’.

  27. michael farris says:

    “Point taken. About ‘spam-generating’, that is, I’m still on the fence when it comes to ‘kooks’.”
    Now that you mention it …..

  28. And of course the “my language is by nature the best” idea goes back even further (and to the very beginning of Hat).

  29. decentinterval says:

    RE Joel’s comment: “On Esperanto: It may be a very suitable international language for Indo-Europhones, but not so much for the rest of the world.”
    From the Esperantist Sylvan Zaft:
    “The other night I was having dinner here in the Detroit area with Koralo Chen, an Esperanto speaker from China whose home is very close to Hong Kong. I presented this objection to him. Koralo Chen replied that he had often heard this objection but that it made little sense to him. In his part of the world the major languages are completely unlike each other. Knowing Chinese doesn’t help with learning how to speak Korean or Japanese, for instance.
    “I can see why this objection makes good theoretical sense to some Westerners, but it makes no sense at all to those Chinese who, like Koralo Chen, need not [have] a theoretically perfect but very practical language to learn for international communication.”
    And from the same site:
    Isn’t Esperanto hard for speakers of non-Indo-European languages?
    Manuel M. Campagna:
    “Non-IE speakers thank you for your protective attitude, but they can and do fend for themselves, and Esperanto is very popular in Hungary, Estonia, Finland, Japan, China, Vietnam… The current [1995-1998] president of the Universal Esperanto Association is a Korean university professor of Economics. The most attended international meeting in 5000 years of Chinese history was the 1986 Universal Congress of Esperanto in Beijing, being the largest both by the number of delegates and the number of countries represented.”
    These are from http://www.esperanto.net/veb/faq-9.html

  30. … those Chinese who, like Koralo Chen, need not [have] a theoretically perfect but very practical language to learn for international communication.

    ?? Could it be that proficiency in Esperanto makes it difficult to formulate intelligible sentences in other languages ? Perhaps it’s just me: I can’t think of any “theoretically perfect but very practical language”. There may be Chinese who don’t need such a thing, but I wouldn’t kick one out of bed, even though I already have several theoretically imperfect but scrumptiously practical languages at my beck and call.

  31. “Small animal that eats cheese” is completely impractical.

  32. just like a mouse loves rice
    Everyone knows you bait a mousetrap with peanutbutter.

  33. michael farris says:

    Actually, I looked it up and I was wrong. “Mouse” in Globish is “an animal chased by cats”
    “a mouse ran out from behind the sofa with a piece of peach in its mouth”
    is translated into Globish as:
    “an animal chased by cats ran out from behind the seat with a piece of fruit in its mouth”
    That’s even more retarded than the cheese version.

  34. Esperanto is inflected, and there’s no need for that. I’d also suspect that if Esperanto ever became the first language of large groups of people, it would develop dialects just as Latin did.

  35. michael farris says:

    John, John, John, trust me on this, you don’t want to get these people’s attention. Just look down and keep moving….

  36. I suspect a good part of Esperanto’s attraction is that you don’t have an implicit power struggle going on as an undercurrent to a conversation. When I speak in English with someone who is a non-native speaker, on some level I am always aware that we are speaking my language and not theirs because they have been forced to learn my language and not the other way around, since English is the language of a dominant culture.
    Sort of the same principle of India using English (or various other countries using various European languages) in official communications to avoid favoring one local ethnic group over another. Esperanto has the advantage of being no one’s first language.

  37. “Small animal that eats cheese” is completely impractical.
    If Norway were suddenly invaded by sliced yellow Kraft, you would be glad to have small animals around to eat it all up before it could reach your plate.
    I too discovered many years ago that mice don’t go for cheese – nor for salami or Parma ham. The problem may have been that in big cities mice become jaded, since there is so much to choose from. At one point I tried to obtain eau de femelle en rut from pet stores, on the theory that copulation must be a stronger lure than appetite. But my request met with strange looks, so I had to abandon that approach. Then I thought of the German saying mit Speck fängt man Mäuse, and sure enough, they are partial to a bit of raw pork fatbelly.

  38. small animals around to eat it all up before it could reach your plate.
    That would be dogs. They’re very fond of stilton, but they’ll eat any kind of cheese-like product, possibly even Kraft processed cheese slices.
    The thing mice really like to eat is paper. Give them a telephone directory and they’ll happily shred it for days.

  39. Our cat Pushkin is also very fond of cheese. Just today he was eagerly gobbling bits of Jarlsberg.

  40. I catch mice with cheese — little bits of Parmeggiano. I don’t know what you are all talking about.

  41. eagerly gobbling bits of Jarlsberg
    I thought you were an anarchist, but here you are hobnobbing with fat cats. Sez here:

    In the United States alone,[Jarlsberg] is sold in over 30,000 supermarkets and a ton of the cheese is eaten per hour.

  42. Actually, taking the population of the US into account, I must concede that 24 tons consumed per day is not that much per consumer, at least when the cats are discounted. But if we discount the people, then the contours of a serious catiposity issue become visible.

  43. Should there be any doubt Jarlsberg is of course a Norwegian cheese.
    Our dog is scared of marshmallows, she thinks they’re alive.

  44. There is one case where McCrum’s idea may have some bearing: the linguistic nature of Mandarin Chinese (more specifically its complexity) will ensure that it will never become a world language, even though China will continue to dominate the world economically. The Chinese language is as beautiful and useful as any language – but the average world citizen will not have the dedication to learn but a few phrases of the language.
    Nope. If the language were as omnipresent in our cities, it would be learned. When I was young, it would have been astronomically nerdy to learn Japanese. The language was said to be impossibly difficult, and its writing even more. Now, Japanese classes are oversubscribed. Why? Because Japanese popular culture (manga, anime) is so popular. People come into contact with the language, pick up phrases naturally, and some of them proceed to proficiency.
    If Chinese were as omnipresent as English, it would be learned, and many people would learn it well – the writing system and the tones notwithstanding.
    It is another thing entirely that languages come with cultural packages. The package associated with American English – democracy, liberal capitalism, free enterprise – is so enticing for so many people globally, that it contributes to its popularity.

  45. I think I’ve seen monster marshmallows in animated cartoons, perhaps The Ren and Stimpy Show:

    Ren Höek, a psychotic “asthma-hound” chihuahua, and Stimpson J. Cat, a dimwitted Manx cat.

    or The Fairly OddParents. Maybe you should reduce the dog’s viewing time. I often watch myself watching these things, wondering why I am watching them – and even more why I am watching myself watching them, instead of doing something more edifying such as watching myself reading Luhmann. Reading Notes From A Cellar Hole again, I am reminded that these concerns are very modern.

  46. I mean that concerns about such concerns (wasting one’s time) are very modern. The concerns themselves can to a large extent be summed up in one word: boredom. I don’t find it at all implausible that even old-timey folks could become bored in the middle of vice-practice.

  47. michael farris says:

    “Our dog is scared of marshmallows, she thinks they’re alive.”
    But is she chased by cats? Or goats?

  48. Goats, a little bit. The little dog won’t go near them.
    Instead of doing something edifying like eating marshmallows. They do feel as if they’re alive. Which is more than I do if I watch the box.

  49. monster marshmallows
    See also the end of the movie “Ghostbusters”.

  50. J.W. Brewer says:

    Panu’s point about languages coming with cultural packages is why Esperanto can never hope to compete successfully with Quenya or Klingon.

  51. Victor Sonkin says:

    I think the historical aspect of international languages was pretty much summed up in Nicholas Ostler’s ‘Empires of the World’. It clearly shows the language’s career has nothing to do whatsoever with its complexity.

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