All the World Speaks Globish

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Illustration: Serge Bloch

The alumni of the vast people’s University of China are typical of the post–Mao Zedong generation. Every Friday evening several hundred gather informally under the pine trees of a little square in Beijing’s Haidian district, in the so-called English Corner, to hold “English conversation.” Chatting together in groups, they discuss football, movies, and celebrities like Victoria Beckham and Paris Hilton in awkward but enthusiastic English. They also like to recite simple slogans such as Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign catchphrases—“Yes, we can” and “Change we can believe in.”

This scene, repeated on campuses across China, demonstrates the dominant aspiration of many contemporary, educated Chinese teenagers: to participate in the global community of English-speaking nations. Indeed, China offers the most dramatic example of a near-global hunger for English that has brought the language to a point of no return as a lingua franca. More vivid and universal than ever, English is now used, in some form, by approximately 4 billion people on earth—perhaps two thirds of the planet—including 400 million native English speakers. As a mother tongue, only Chinese is more prevalent, with 1.8 billion native speakers—350 million of whom also speak some kind of English.

Contagious, adaptable, populist, and subversive, the English language has become as much a part of the global consciousness as the combustion engine. And as English gains momentum as a second language all around the world, it is morphing into a new and simplified version of itself—one that responds to the 24/7 demands of a global economy and culture with a stripped-down vocabulary of words like “airplane,” “chat room,” “taxi,” and “cell phone.” Having neatly made the transition from the Queen’s English to the more democratic American version, it is now becoming a worldwide power, a populist tool increasingly known as Globish.

The rise of Globish first became obvious in 2005, when an obscure Danish newspaper called The Jutland Post published a sequence of satirical cartoons poking fun at the Prophet Muhammad. The Muslim world exploded, with riots across Afghanistan, Nigeria, Libya, and Pakistan; in all, 139 people died. But perhaps the most bizarre response was a protest by fundamentalist Muslims outside the Danish Embassy in London. Chanting in English, the protesters carried placards with English slogans like BUTCHER THOSE WHO MOCK ISLAM; FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION GO TO HELL; and (my favorite) DOWN WITH FREE SPEECH.

This collision of the Islamic jihad with the Oxford English Dictionary, or perhaps of the Quran with Monty Python, made clear (at least to me) the dramatic shift in global self-expression asserting itself across a world united by the Internet. What more surreal—and telling—commentary on the Anglicization of modern society than a demonstration of devout Muslims, in London, exploiting an old English freedom expressed in the English language, to demand the curbing of the libertarian tradition that actually legitimized their protest?

I wasn’t alone in noticing this change. In 2007 I came across an article in the International Herald Tribune about a French-speaking retired IBM executive, Jean-Paul Nerrière, who described English and its international deployment as “the worldwide dialect of the third millennium.” Nerrière, posted to Japan with IBM in the 1990s, had noticed that non-native English speakers in the Far East communicated in English far more successfully with their Korean and Japanese clients than British or American executives. Standard English was all very well for Anglophones, but in the developing world, this non-native “decaffeinated English”—full of simplifications like “the son of my brother” for “nephew,” or “words of honor” for “oath”—was becoming the new global phenomenon. In a moment of inspiration, Nerrière christened it “Globish.”

The term quickly caught on within the international community. The (London) Times journalist Ben Macintyre described a conversation he had overheard while waiting for a flight from Delhi between a Spanish U.N. peacekeeper and an Indian soldier. “The Indian spoke no Spanish; the Spaniard spoke no Punjabi,” he says. “Yet they understood one another easily. The language they spoke was a highly simplified form of English, without grammar or structure, but perfectly comprehensible, to them and to me. Only now do I realize that they were speaking ‘Globish,’ the newest and most widely spoken language in the world.”

For Nerrière, Globish was a kind of linguistic tool, a version of basic or so-called Easy English with a vocabulary of just 1,500 words. As I saw it, however, “Globish” was the newly globalized lingua franca, essential English merged with the terminology of the digital age and the international news media. I knew from my work in the mid-1980s on a PBS series called The Story of English that British English had enjoyed global supremacy throughout the 19th-century age of empire, after centuries of slow growth from Chaucer and Shakespeare, through the King James Bible to the establishment of the Raj in India and the great Imperial Jubilee of 1897. The map of the world dominated by the Union Jack answered to the Queen’s English; Queen Victoria, in her turn, was the first British monarch to address her subjects worldwide through the new technology of recorded sound, with a scratchy, high-pitched “Good evening!” In this first phase, there was an unbreakable link between imperialism and language that inhibited further development.

In the second phase, the power and influence of English passed to the United States, largely through the agency of the two world wars. Then, throughout the Cold War, Anglo-American culture became part of global consciousness through the mass media—movies, newspapers, and magazines. Crucially, in this second phase, the scope of English was limited by its troubled association with British imperialism and the Pax Americana. But the end of the Cold War and the long economic boom of the 1990s distanced the Anglo-American hegemony from its past, setting the language free in the minds of millions. Now you could still hate George W. Bush and burn the American flag while simultaneously idolizing American pop stars or splashing out on Apple computers.

With the turn of the millennium, it appeared that English language and culture were becoming rapidly decoupled from their contentious past. English began to gain a supranational momentum that made it independent of its Anglo-American origins. And as English became liberated from its roots, it began to spread deeper into the developing world. In 2003 both Chile and Mongolia declared their intention to become bilingual in English. In 2006 English was added to the Mexican primary-school curriculum as a compulsory second language. And the formerly Francophone state of Rwanda adopted English as its official language in 2009.

In China, some 50 million people are enrolled in a language program, known colloquially as “Crazy English,” conducted by “the Elvis of English,” Li Yang, who often teaches groups of 10,000 or more, under the slogan “Conquer English to make China strong.” Li Yang is part preacher, part drill sergeant, part pedagogue. He gathers his students in football stadiums, raucously repeating everyday phrases. “How are you?” he yells through a bullhorn. “How are you?” repeats the crowd. “I’m in the pink!” he responds. “I’m in the pink!” they reply—ironically, using an arcane bit of Edwardian slang for “feeling good.” Li Yang has even published a memoir called I Am Crazy, I Succeed.?

The viral nature of Globish means that it’s bottom-up, not top-down. The poet Walt Whitman once wrote that English was not “an abstract construction of dictionary makers” but a language that “has its basis broad and low, close to the ground.” Ever since English was driven underground by the Norman Conquest in 1066, it has been the language of Everyman and the common people. That’s truer than ever today.

The fact is that English no longer depends on the U.S. or U.K. It’s now being shaped by a world whose second language is English, and whose cultural reference points are expressed in English but without reference to its British or American origins. Films like the 2009 Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire hasten the spread of Globish—a multilingual, multicultural cast and production team creating a film about the collision of languages and cultures, launched with an eye toward Hollywood. The dialogue may mix English, Hindi, and Arabic, but it always falls back on Globish. When the inspector confronts Amir on suspicion of cheating, he asks in succinct Globish: “So. Were you wired up? A mobile or a pager, correct? Some little hidden gadget? No? A coughing accomplice in the audience? Microchip under the skin, huh?”

Globish is already shaping world events on many fronts. During last year’s Iranian elections, the opposition used Globish to transmit its grievances to a worldwide audience. Cell-phone images of crude slogans like GET AWAY ENGLAND and FREE, FAIR VOTING NOW, and innumerable tweets from Westernized Iranians communicated the strength of the emergency to the West.

In the short term, Globish is set to only grow. Some 70 to 80 percent of the world’s Internet home pages are in English, compared with 4.5 percent in German and 3.1 percent in Japanese. According to the British Council, by 2030 “nearly one third of the world’s population will be trying to learn English at the same time.” That means ever more voices adapting the English language to suit their needs, finding in Globish a common linguistic denominator.

The distinguished British educator Sir Eric Anderson tells a story that illustrates the growing life-and-death importance of Globish. On the morning of the 7/7 bombings in London, an Arab exchange student tried to take the Underground from southwest London to his daily class in the City. When he found his station inexplicably closed, he boarded a bus. During his journey his mobile phone rang. It was a Greek friend in Athens who was watching the news of the bombings on CNN. Communicating urgently in the Globish jargon of international TV, he described the “breaking news” and warned that London’s buses had become terror targets. As a result of this conversation, the student disembarked from the bus. A minute later it was destroyed by a suicide bomber, with the loss of many lives.

This is not the end of Babel. The world, “flatter” and smaller than ever before, is still a patchwork of some 5,000 languages. Native speakers still cling fiercely to their mother tongues, as they should. But when an Indian and a Cuban want to commission medical research from a lab in Uruguay, with additional input from Israeli technicians—as the Midwestern U.S. startup EndoStim recently did—the language they will turn to will be Globish.

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