Robert McCrum discusses his new book, Globish: How English became the world's language

Q. Do you like the term Globish?

A. I don’t love it, but I think it does the job .... As we say in England, it does what it says on the tin.

Q. You quote Walt Whitman describing English as “the dialect of common sense.’’

A. That’s why it’s so contagious. It’s useful. It has a function. It delivers the goods. There are many flaws to English, many quirks — not least the spelling — but it does a good job.

Q. You make a distinction in the book between the imperial roots of English internationally, but the language not being imperious.

A. The French have always been very imperious. Whenever they have a cultural decision to make it’s always top down. With English, it’s always bottom up. I’m saying implicitly that there’s a quality to the English language which is different from German or French or Chinese. That quality is approachability, usefulness, adaptability.

Q. If the world is flat, as Thomas Friedman argues, then is English round?

A. One would say it probably is. This is the first time in the history of the planet when the whole world can transmit and receive the same language. Not everyone chooses to do that, of course. There are still 5,000 mother tongues, and they are very important. But at the same time you’ve got this unprecedented situation. Latin was a lingua franca in the Middle Ages, but it didn’t extend much beyond the Mediterranean basin.

Q. Which has been more important to the emergence of Globish: the British Empire, American popular culture, or the World Wide Web?

A. There are a number of keys. The first is the passing of one empire, the British, followed by another, the Pax Americana, which had essentially had the same language, values, and culture. The rise of global capitalism is very important, too. They all come together, like a perfect storm, at the right moment. That’s the key.

First published in the Boston Globe. For longer version of this interview go here

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