I say tomato ... you say red, round fruit. Increasingly, people across the world use some sort of English, but it is not the Queen's. Robert McCrum, Observer Literary Editor, reports on why Globish - English-lite - is becoming the universal language of boardroom, the net and politicsRobert McCrum
ObserverJean-Paul Nerriere is the kind of high-flying Frenchman at which the Grandes Ecoles excel: cosmopolitan, witty, voluble and insatiably curious about the world around him. Formerly a naval commander, then a businessman, he is the proud holder of the Legion d'Honneur. In his blue blazer and cravat, twinkly Nerriere cuts a dashing figure, seems much younger than his 65 years and occupies a surprising place in contemporary European culture.
Now retired in Provence, the defining moment of his career occurred in the late 1980s. As a high-flying vice-president of IBM in America, Nerriere was put in charge of international marketing and on company trips to Tokyo and Seoul he did what Frenchmen have to do in the global marketplace: communicate with the locals as best he could in his heavily accented English. It was then, in 1989, that he had a life-changing revelation.
In scenes reminiscent of Lost in Translation, Nerriere noted that his conversation with the Japanese and Koreans was 'much easier and more efficient than what could be observed between them and the British and American (IBM) employees who came with me'. A thoughtful man, with a fascination for the exploits of Nelson, he noted that this observation of non-Anglophone English communication applied to 'all non-English-speaking countries'.
Then Nerriere came to his radical, perhaps revolutionary, conclusion: 'The language non-Anglophones spoke together,' he says, 'was not English, but something vaguely like it.' In this language, he noted, 'we were better off than genuine Anglophones'. This language, he decided, 'was the worldwide dialect of the third millennium'. In a moment of pure inspiration he called it 'Globish' (pronounced 'globe-ish').
Globish is not 'pidgin' or 'broken' English but it is highly simplified and unidiomatic. Nerriere observes that in Globish you could never say, 'This erstwhile buddy of yours is a weird duck who will probably put the kibosh on all our good deeds.' That might make sense in Acacia Avenue but it will not play in Buenos Aires or Zurich. In Globish you would express this as: 'Your old friend is too strange. He would ruin all our efforts.' Globish, says Nerriere, is 'decaffeinated English, or English-lite'.
The end of Babel is one of mankind's oldest ambitions, and Globish is its most recent expression. As long ago as the 1920s, the critic IA Richards formulated Basic English, an 850-word version of English, initially for use in China. Richards's initiative was followed in 1930 by the Swedish philologist RE Zachrisson who proposed another international language, essentially English, to be called Anglic, the basic drawback of which can be demonstrated in the Anglic version of a famous sentence: 'Forskor and sevn yeerz agoe our faadherz braut forth on this kontinent a nuw naeshon, konseevd in liberti ...'
Still the dream did not die. In 1940 the British Simplified Spelling Society mounted a campaign for New Spelling, a cause enthusiastically taken up by George Bernard Shaw, who bequeathed part of his fortune to spelling reform. After Shaw such ideas lapsed but in the 1970s some cultural commentators began to write about Amer-English. That one did not stick either but now there was talk of English becoming the new Latin - a global tongue flourishing independently of its national origins.
In the aftermath of his Eureka moment, Nerriere began to codify a Globish vocabulary of 1,500 words (jpn-globish.com). He also produced a mission statement, Parlez Globish, first published in 2004, with translations in Italian, Spanish, Korean and (imminently) Japanese.
Parlez Globish, says Nerriere, 'is not a manual. It develops and demonstrates a theory and gives only a beginning of the recipes required to make Globish work.' Still, he concedes that the grammatical rules of Globish are based on English grammar. A typical conversation in Globish would be painful to a native speaker but might bridge the communication gap between, say, a Korean and a Greek trying to hammer out a business deal. 'Chat' becomes 'speak casually to each other'; and 'kitchen' is the 'room in which you cook your food'. But 'pizza' is still 'pizza' because Globish recognises the word as international currency, like 'taxi' and 'police'. Nerriere insists that, for all its simplifications, Globish is not a 'me Tarzan, you Jane' version of English.
Nerriere himself is sometimes described as a remarkable man whose ambition is to promote global understanding between nationalities. He speaks passionately about his hopes for Globish as 'an official language that would facilitate the life of everyone and put everyone on a par'. He hopes that 'some day it will be accepted as a viable alternative by the European Union or the United Nations'.
He is emphatic that Globish is not a real language like German, French or Japanese. This, acutely, he defines as 'the DNA of a culture'. Although his ambition for Globish is that it should be a tool for international communication, he distinguishes it from Esperanto. 'Globish is not artificial,' he says. 'It derives from the observation that some kind of English is spoken everywhere.'
A good European, Nerriere describes Globish as a device that will 'limit the influence of the English language dramatically'. He says: 'I am helping the rescue of French, and of all the languages that are threatened by English today but which will not be at all endangered by Globish. It is in the best interests of non-Anglophone countries to support Globish, especially if you like your culture and its language.'
So, on closer inspection, Nerriere is inspired by old-fashioned French nationalism. He adds: 'National languages like French could hardly complain: it [Globish] leaves them a great space in which to have a wonderful influence.'
This is a line of argument that might appeal to the Academie Francaise whose initiatives to check the spread of 'la langue du Coca-Cola' have meant abolishing borrowed words and inventing suitable French alternatives to hated Americanisms, for example 'gros porteur' for 'jumbo jet'.
Worries about Coca-colonialism are not confined to France. In 2004 German conservatives proposed a language purification law to eliminate the bastard tongue known as 'Denglish', which had co-opted vocabulary like 'pickup', 'flirt' and 'underwear', words often borrowed from Voice of America broadcasts. When he came to write Parlez Globish, Nerriere used Voice of America as a source for his non-Anglophone hybrid.
His book has hardly been reviewed, or much noticed, but the appearance of Globish marks a tipping point, another small step towards a supranational version of American English the reference points of which are anchored neither in the US nor the UK, the fulfilment of what some have called the 'Latinisation' of English.
This moment has been a generation in the making. From the early 1980s, English and American culture has hovered on the brink of a universal non-Anglo-American expression, in language, culture, law, literature and even sport.
Today, possibly as a consequence of 9/11, the planet has arrived at what we might call the Globish revolution, a globalisation of Anglo-American culture as much as language in which 'some kind of English' has become a universal global currency. By some calculations, indeed, as many as a billion people, nearly a sixth of mankind, now use English as either a first or, more prevalently, second language. This used to be known as 'offshore English'. Globish, 'the international dialect of the third millennium', is a more apt description.
In the Globish revolution, South Koreans protest against North Korean nuclear testing with placards (in English) such as 'Stop the nukes'. In London, Islamic militants denounce anti-Muslim cartoons with English slogans ('Down with free speech'; 'Vikings beware') outside the Danish embassy. In the world of Globish, the film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is sold to international markets and the House of Lords rules on the use of torture in the 'war on terror' using arguments the roots of which lie in the debates surrounding Magna Carta.
Globish means that today 80 per cent of the world's home pages on the worldwide web are 'in some kind of English', compared to German (4.5 per cent) and Japanese (3.1 per cent). Nerriere also notes that, in the Globish revolution, the Goethe Institute now advocates promoting German culture through the medium of a Europeanised English.
His belief in Globish is practical. He says, 'Globish does not want to be French or German. If you want to read Shakespeare or Harry Potter, learn English. If you want to do business, learn Globish. There is no competition. Each is a distinct concept.'
Globish has spread into the export processing zones of the Far East, the sweatshops of Bangkok and Shanghai and the hypermarkets of Japan and Korea. All this goes hand-in-hand with the Globish package deal: mass consumerism and tourism are opposite sides of the same coin. In hundreds of thousands of daily transactions, the language of Thomas Cook employees, of MasterCard call centres and the Sheraton check-out desk will be Globish, the global dialect of No Logo capitalism, and a kind of universal No Lingo.
Twenty years ago, when I was working on the BBC documentary series The Story of English, we struggled to find modern terminology for English as a lingua franca. Globish is not only the mot juste, it also provides a stunning metaphor for that sometimes puzzling state of international culture and society for which terms like 'Amer-English' or 'Anglo-American hegemony' are inadequate. Globishness can be found in many guises, from the net to contemporary fiction. The 2006 Booker Prize, for example, was an archetypally Globish event. First, the result was broadcast, via the News at Ten O'Clock, to a BBC World audience from Mumbai to Vancouver. Next, two of the six shortlisted titles (In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar and The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai) turned out to be fictional interpretations of, respectively, Libyan and Indian society. So far removed from the English literary tradition was Desai's winning entry that the British critic John Sutherland was moved to describe her work as 'a globalised novel for a globalised world'.
Desai is emblematic of a new Globish culture: educated in Britain and America, and at home in airport lounges or shopping malls, she wrote The Inheritance of Loss in the foothills of the Himalayas. She boasts on her website of feeling 'no alienation or dislocation' in her transmigration between three continents. She has admitted she 'tries to capture what it means to live between East and West'. Desai asks: 'How does the imbalance between these two worlds change a person's thinking and feeling? How do these changes manifest themselves in a personal sphere over time?' Or in a linguistic and cultural sphere ?
Globish may be a metaphor, but it is not yet a reality. Booker prizewinners will continue to express themselves in varieties of British or Indian or Australian English. Dictionaries will continue to define British and American, and even Indian, versions of the language.
Outside the cloister, in the marketplace, such refinements will continue to break down. Even at the official level there is a new recognition of the role of English as a tool, not a vehicle for literature. The British Council, for example, has a World English Project that boasts of two billion new English speakers 'within a decade'. The project is the first to concede that these 'English speakers' will probably use a version of the language far removed from BBC English, RP or Standard American English.
The author of a report for the project, David Graddol, notes that this will not be, 'English as we have known it and have taught it in the past as a foreign language. If it represents any kind of triumph [for English], it is probably not a cause of celebration by native speakers.' Graddol adds, in words quoted approvingly by Nerriere: 'We are now nearing the end of the period where native speakers can bask in their privileged knowledge of the global lingua franca.' In other words, the future belongs to Globish.
The internet also offers remarkable opportunities for Globish, and Nerriere says that it is ideally suited to global blogging. Working with two associates, Philippe Dufresne and Jacques Bourgon, he has now developed a handbook, Decouvrez le Globish (Discover Globish), designed to teach would-be Globish users to master the new language in six months, backed up by a piece of software (Glolexis).
'Globishness' also has sociocultural applications. Consider, for instance, the landmark House of Lords ruling on the use of torture in Iraq. Thirty terrorist suspects, fighting deportation to countries such as Algeria and Libya, had taken their case to the Lords in an effort to overturn a ruling by the Court of Appeal that 'coerced evidence' (ie evidence obtained by torture), could be admissible in court. On 9 December 2005 all seven lords unanimously denounced the use of 'coerced evidence'. From the commentary surrounding this landmark ruling, two things stand out, both of them indicative of a new 'Globish' consciousness. First, the language and precedents of the judgment were inspired by English common law of the 15th and 16th centuries. Lord Bingham, for example, declared that 'English common law has regarded torture and its fruits with abhorrence for 500 years'. Second, the law lords' choice of language and precedents was deliberate - to send an unambiguous signal to the American Supreme Court that the torture inspired by the so-called war on terror (Abu Ghraib; Guantanamo) was inadmissible in a civilised society. A rebuff to the British government, this was also an extraordinary rebuke to the Bush administration.
As one of the lawyers representing the defendants, Philippe Sands QC, put it: 'We were aware that the judges recognised that the audience for this case was not purely an audience sitting in the UK, and that there was a global audience for the [House of Lords] judgment because the issue concerned Guantanamo and the prosecution of the war on terror.' Sands says everyone involved 'recognised that the judgment would resonate best internationally if it was based on English common law not a European treaty'. It was considerations of 'Globishness' that influenced their lordships to rule as they did.
The Globish revolution is neither wholly English nor American, but its DNA is inherited from both cultures. It takes inspiration from Alfred and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, from the Domesday Book, Magna Carta and the Pilgrim Fathers. Its roots can be traced to Caxton's printing press, to the Book of Common Prayer, the plays of Shakespeare, the Putney Debates and the Declaration of Independence. Globishness also resides in the FA Cup, the US Open, Friends, Doctor Who and Neighbours -and also in Jane Austen (Bollywood's Bride and Prejudice is the quintessential Globish movie). 9/11 has tipped global culture into a new dimension. In a world in which America is the enemy, war has given a pacific, neutral voice like Globish a new impetus in the 21st century. This, you might say, is the Globish village
Innovation or aberration... what do you think?
Fluent Globish: How to speak it
Brought to Britain by German settlers in the 5th century BC.
The OED lists 615,000 words.
Globish fans say English takes 24 years to learn - if you study for 20 hours a year.
354m people speak English as their first language.
MN Gogate coined the word Globish in 1998. Jean-Paul Nerriere, a retired IBM marketing executive, published Parlez Globish in 2004.
Globish has a vocabulary of 1,500 words and takes 9 years to learn.
1.5bn speak it as a second language.
Say it in English
I went to my niece and nephew's party the other weekend. I played the piano and we were all singing along when a mouse ran out from behind the sofa with a piece of peach in its mouth.
Say it in Globish
At the party of my children's brother the other day, I played an instrument with black and white keys and we all sang along. Then an animal chased by cats ran out from behind the seat with a piece of fruit in its mouth.