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Updated: August 13, 2010 11:27 IST

Welcome to the most widely spoken language

D. Murali
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Thomas Friedman’s ‘Eureka moment,’ as you may recall, came in Bangalore when Nandan Nilekani, the then CEO of Infosys, used the phrase ‘the playing field is being levelled’ to describe the new opportunities available to the India-based computer company. Reminiscing this, Robert McCrum writes in ‘Globish: How the English language became the world’s language’ (www.landmarkonthenet.com), how in the new knowledge economy, cities such as London, Boston, San Francisco, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangalore, could all be linked simultaneously, offering a new challenge as much for a modernising India as for a globalising America.

“Armed with this insight, Friedman mobilised himself to explore the many economic aspects of globalisation, from Wal-Mart to Yahoo!, that were contributing to this flattening process. For Friedman, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the PC, Netscape, outsourcing and ‘off-shoring’ – his ‘flattening’ forces – combined to enhance a new global awareness.”

While the new technology was beginning to dismantle old frontiers, lubricate social frictions and facilitate global interconnections, there was also the need for a language to humanise the software, a language that was adaptable, collaborative, and populist, argues McCrum. The practical response to a practical need came in the form of ‘part English, part American, part global.’

Decaffeinated English

At the interface of technology and global capitalism, the world’s English responds to specific, local imperatives, as Jean-Paul Nerrière understood when he coined ‘Globish’ in 1995, the author notes.

Nerrière, a French-speaking former IBM executive and amateur linguistic scholar, had noticed that non-native English-speakers in the Far East communicated more successfully in English with their Korean and Japanese clients than competing British or American executives, one learns from the book. He formulated the idea of ‘decaffeinated English’ and, in a moment of inspiration, christened it ‘Globish,’ to mean ‘the newest and most widely spoken language in the world’ starting from a utilitarian vocabulary of some 1,500 words, and designed for use by non-native speakers.

Unifying force

Sample this account, cited from ‘The Last Word,’ by Ben MacIntyre: “I was recently waiting for a flight in Delhi, when I overheard a conversation between a Spanish UN peacekeeper and an Indian soldier. The Indian spoke no Spanish; the Spaniard spoke no Punjabi. 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.”

It is an Indian paradox, says McCrum, that the language of the former colonial masters is both a vehicle for originality and free expression, as well as a unifying national force. As example, he describes the south of India, ‘still profoundly resentful of the Hindi northern states centred on the capital, Delhi,’ but using English as a default language among people who need to find a means of communication that is acceptable to all speakers.

“And in Mumbai, the novelist Salman Rushdie likes to say, the people of his native city speak something called ‘Hug-me,’ his witty acronym for the Mumbai mixture of Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi, and finally, English. ‘Hug-me’ is more localised than ‘Hinglish,’ but you will find alternative urban variations of it all over India.”

Floating free, spreading fast

Looking around, the author finds the world’s varieties of English ranging from the ‘Crazy English’ taught to the Chinese-speaking officials of the Beijing Olympics, to the ‘voice and accent’ manuals issued by Infosys and Microsoft at their Bangalore headquarters. In his view, the real challenge to the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible comes less from alien speech than from the ceaseless amendments made to English in a myriad daily transactions across the known world.

Global English, as McCrum avers, is floating free from its troubled British and American past, and has begun to take on a life of its own, both in terms of syntax and vocabulary. And, driven by IT, the world’s English is spreading at warp speed, with new words, phrases and expressions whizzing into circulation and then drifting off into oblivion. The freedom of cyberspace has poured ‘gasoline on the human imagination,’ as an apt quote sums up.

“Constantly in a state of ungovernable flux, at the mercy of fashion, whim and caprice, the indefinable genius – the word is hardly too strong – of the English language has always been to adapt itself, like mercury, to every new contour.”

World’s English in action

McCrum discovers that the rise of an educated middle class is not merely a feature of the new India but of South-East Asia as a whole. “In cities like Bangalore, Kuala Lumpur, Chennai, Jakarta, and Bangkok, IT graduates-turned-entrepreneurs began to exploit a combination of the world’s English and the new media to market their expertise across the developed world, and especially America.”

The book mentions many examples of the world’s English in action in recent times, including the case of Dell setting up operations in Nashville, Tennessee, Penang, Malaysia, Xiamen, China, Eldorado do Sul, Brazil, and Limerick, Ireland. And of Lenovo, the former IBM subsidiary, with factories in Beijing and Raleigh, North Carolina, listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, and many of the Asian stock exchanges, with a headquarters in China, and a US-educated chairman of the board.

Contemporary aspiration

In this arena, observes McCrum, ‘Globish’ becomes more than just an essential means of communication: it embodies a contemporary aspiration, one that expresses a willingness to innovate, to adapt old uses and to enfranchise new people. Though language is intrinsically neutral, the history of the world’s English, however, puts it on the side of the individual confronting a demanding new challenge about his or her place in society, he says.

“Inevitably, it is an imperfect solution, with many loose ends and much unfinished business. But it is precisely the imperfections of English that are part of its enduring strength… Chinese, Indians, Mexicans and Poles who are ambitious to succeed in the ‘flat’ world will acquire the language skills necessary to achieve their goals.”

Scoffing at the criticism by social conservatives that there is a decline of British or American literacy among Asian, Hispanic or African immigrant populations, the author reminds that the world’s English is brilliantly adaptable. Also, for every split infinitive, misconstrued verb and clumsy malapropism there will be a dozen faultless executions of expressions with complex grammar and syntax, he continues.

Functional and fashionable

A chapter titled ‘The world at your fingertips’ acknowledges that the trillions of text messages make some contribution to the English language, however small. For instance, ‘lol,’ ‘gr8,’ and ‘u’ are among the words used by the world’s texters, irrespective of their mother tongue; and the French apparently prefer now to maintenant, and the Dutch write ‘2m’ for ‘tomorrow,’ the author informs. He foresees that the astonishing speed of technological change in the world of information will eventually relegate texting to a quaint footnote, but, in the short run, it is an important development in our language.

Tracing back, McCrum notices that English is functional and fashionable, and well suited to the witty reductions of the keypad for the mobile or cellphone, worldwide. The average English word has only five letters, whereas the average Inuit word has fourteen, he reasons. “English has few inflections and almost no diacritical marks. As the language of the world’s popular culture, English will be the default position for the younger generation for decades to come.”

Cyber-democracy

In the era of the World Wide Web and cyber-democracy, the author perceives the English-speaking world to be ‘a universal expression of global consciousness, an extraordinary weave of law, literature, advertising, film, gossip, sport, politics and tourism.’ The IT revolution – an expansion of communications combined with a centrifugal dispersal of information – ensures that the global community now operates quite differently from the way it did in the past, he narrates.

“Before the twenty-first century most of the world enjoyed an adequate, but limited, supply of data. Individual nations disseminated a commonality of information through centralised distribution networks, like state media and a unified print culture.”

Thankfully, no longer! For, in a Globish world, everyone has access to an unlimited supply of data which floats, detached from all cultural anchors, in the infinite reservoir of cyberspace, cheers McCrum.

Imperative read.

**

Tailpiece

“Stopped using ‘FYI’ in my emails to the boss…”

“That’s ‘for your information,’ right?”

“Thought so, till I learnt that he was reading between the letters, differently!”

**

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