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Review: Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language, by Robert McCrum

Henry Hitchins, in The Secret Life of Words, notes that "English is, to an unusual degree, a place of strange meetings." Globish, Robert McCrum's new book, evokes these meetings, from their beginnings on "a small island in the North Atlantic" to our Internetted, globalized present, in a vibrant, textured detail that is travelogue, social theory and etymological guide.

Travellers, real and virtual, each with a national and/or regional language. now speak and write their language with a measure of English interweave. Countries have portmanteau names for this interweave - Franglais, Grenglish, Svengelska, Itaglish, Konglish, Manglish - and the word that describes all these interweaves: Panglish. This has been a growing aspect of international patois for some time. And, as the "English-and" dialects grow in number, word-for-word literal translations disappear. We may, with time, lose the culture-specific beauty of A Streetcar Named Desire being called, in Japanese, An Autobus, by Nickname, Hope. What we gain, with the new international pidgin McCrum calls Globish, is an ever-expanding way for people from anywhere to speak with people from everywhere else.

This is fine in principle, and frequently in practice - I know this, having frequently found my way into language through Franglais, Grenglish or Svengelska - but there are also losses of nuance, there are dumb-downs. The convenience of text messages has led to a shorthand that uglifies our letters (when we even write letters; remember letters?) and e-mails in textspeak ("omg! Wl b l8!"). I recently told an articulate friend (actual, not virtual) that I would not reply to e-mails that asked "how r u?"

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Then there are instant online translations (Google's being the most popular; reasonably clean, but more stiff and sterile than what occurs, neologisms and all, if one works a combination of mind, memory and dictionary to speak as one's self, gaffes included).

McCrum, best known in North America for the book and television documentary The Story of English (co-written with William Cran and Canadian Robert MacNeil) shares many anecdotes (including a subtly witty description of Pope Gregory the Great's aesthetic delight upon encountering, for the first time, "fair-haired" English adolescent boys, a delight with ominous future implications).

McCrum also twice refers to Montrealer Mark Abley's first-rate The Prodigal Tongue. A propos Abley's earlier book, Spoken Here, which bemoaned the loss to us all of more and more world languages, McCrum also recognizes the important balance between English lingua franca and the "Babel" with which it will (or should) always exist. We are enriched by living, as much as possible, in the language being used wherever we fetch up. Letting the native speakers bring you their English as you reach for their language, creates exchange (even when you could get by with only English) and that bespeaks (no pun intended) respect, equality and non-imperialism. It's warmer, friendlier … and produces a very funny collection of gaffes, on all sides.

Black English, from slave adaptations (African-American and African-Caribbean) to the unique English blend that runs from the ancient world of Scipio Africanus through Martin Luther King and Barack Obama, is recognized as a force within world linguistics (though I wish more African-descended English writing (e.g. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston,) had been included, equally, to the white writers writing about black English (Norman Mailer, Aphra Behn, George Gershwin). Not instead of (McCrum shows the weight of an influence through highlighting the influenced, all gifted), but alongside.

That said, Globish is one of the richest, fullest and most beautiful books on the history of our common and different language - and the people, journeys, wars and alliances that created and continue to create it - that I've ever read. Almost every page contains a note about something to share with you, the reader. That, of course, is impossible. So I simply urge you to reward yourself with one of the best, yet most accessible language and history books I've encountered.

Contributing reviewer Gale Zoë Garnett is a lifetime traveller and a long-time collector of wordbooks, both formal and colloquial. Recently, in Sweden, mistaking ö for å, she asked to be humiliated in the cellar.

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