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Book Review

Globish: How English Became the World’s Language

Several hundred Chinese students from Renmin University of China gather on campus every Friday to discuss a variety of topics, including movies, current events, and politics. What makes this seemingly insignificant event extraordinary is that all of the conversation is in English. In Globish, Robert McCrum documents how and why English grew from its roots as the language of an isolated island nation to become the world’s lingua franca, the language of Wikipedia and Google. Today a third of the world’s population, or an estimated 4 billion people, have functional knowledge of English. Tracing the rise of English through five parts, the author examines the empire through the lens of language and how English would become Globish.

In Part One, “Founders,” McCrum charts the development of the English language from the Anglo-Saxons through 1066 (the date of the Norman invasion). Those few hundred years would introduce French and German influence into the language, forever changing the language that would become English. Part Two, “Pioneers,” follows the language across the Atlantic and into the New World, tracing its accessibility to the public, as seen through the astounding success of Noah Webster’s American Speller.

In Part Three, “Popularisers,” the author returns to the homeland to chart how English became the language of imperial power leading into the Napoleonic and world wars. Samuel Johnson lights the way through the compilation of his Dictionary (with definitions for more than 40,000 words written by Dr. Johnson himself based on some 114,000 quotations from h is impossibly wide reading). Part Four, “Modernisers,” examines how the spread of English fueled the Cold War, through the creation of 135 Information Service posts in 87 countries to broadcast American films. By 1955 Europe boasted 69 such houses, with 134 million copies of English language books distributed in Austria alone. Part Five, “Globalisers,” ventures into the two economic superpowers to which we have outsourced the work of spreading English around the world: China and India.
      McCrum’s celebration of English cum Globish emphasizes the tongue’s adaptability and its relative simplicity—the average English word is only five letters long. He concludes with a hopeful look at the influence that a supernational Globish, rather than an explicitly Anglo-American, language and culture might have. Like Latin, in the first millennium, ours looks to be a language with a life well beyond that of its empire.