The expulsion of an Israeli diplomat this week took me back more than a quarter of a century, to the expulsion of the Soviet “diplomat” Valery Ivanov in 1983. Ivanov had been fingered as a KGB spy, and he was being thrown out for attempting to influence a senior A.L.P. figure, David Combe.

Could you say that again in Australian..accused Russian spy Valeriy Ivanov leaves Sydney in 1983.

Surrounded by media at the airport, he gave a brief statement in Russian. As he turned to go, a voice rang out: “Could you say that again in Australian?”

Ivanov didn’t bother – he was gone. But the question stuck with me for one reason: it was the first time (though by no means the last) that I was to hear the language we speak referred to, not as English, nor as “Australian English”, but as “Australian”. 

It’s probably not a coincidence that this happened just as the then relatively new Macquarie Dictionary had sold enough copies around Australia to make a wide impression on the public mind: a small but significant turning point in the national identity.

Since I make part of my living by trying to re-arrange the letters of the alphabet into relatively orderly and interesting patterns, I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the language we speak:  its origins, its structure, its flexibility and its future. Most of us, though, treat the language as we treat the engine of our car: we scarcely ever look under the bonnet, and we don’t really care too much as long as it works.

I’ve written before about some of the dire consequences of this neglect – the proliferation of managerial gobbledeygook in which the bottom line is that ongoing situations impact outcomes at the end of the day - but it’s also worth pointing out how much pleasure and insight is to be had from understanding the history of the language we speak.

We can call it ‘Australian’ if we want, but in answer to the question “ Who is Australia’s greatest writer?”, I once heard the novelist David Malouf reply: “William Shakespeare”.

The fact is that we speak a language that was born on a foggy island off Northern Europe,  but whose history has somehow made it uniquely adaptable to a globalised world.

The story of how this happened is entertainingly told in a new book, Globish, by Robert McCrum.

For him it is a revisiting of an old obsession: McCrum was the script-writer of the popular 1980s BBC TV series, The Story of English, in the 1980s.

But it’s in the nature of the story that he tells that there is a great deal new to say after the passage of 25 years.

The title comes from a French amateur linguistic historian, Jean-Paul Nerriere, who “noticed that non-native English-speakers in the Far East communicated more successfully with their Korean and Japanese clients than competing English or American executives”. He worked out that this “decaffeinated” English, which he named ‘Globish’, used a vocabulary of just 1,500 words.

Interviewed by McCrum, Jean-Paul Nerriere says he sees Globish, oddly, as a means of preserving the French language. Its spread, he confides, “will limit the influence of the English language dramatically”.

The book – without becoming a polemic - effectively becomes a long historical riposte to the Frenchman’s hopes.

McCrum’s point, essentially, is that English has survived and prospered because, unlike French, it has done very little to maintain its linguistic purity.

The Academie Francaise spent most of the last half century in a doomed effort to hold back the tide of neologisms, mostly from English. When I was Europe correspondent in the Eighties, they reacted to the Sony Walkman, for instance, by insisting it be called a “baladeur”, (from the word “balader’, to stroll or wander). A euphonious coinage, but quickly as outdated and irrelevant as the Walkman itself. Their attempts to enforce “informatique” for “software” fared no better. The list goes on.

McCrum, by contrast, uses the historical record to show how often the English language has been beaten and forced into accepting the new. First came the Saxons, who took British and turned it into a form of English. Then the Normans, who imposed French as the official language of Britain (lingua franca, of course, being the Latin for French language).

These, along with the Church’s insistence on Latin, ensured that English would be a mongrel thing, in which the strong bones of Anglo-Saxon provided a welcoming framework for any other languages that English-speakers came in contact with.

Hence, by the late 1500s, it was a language ready to explode with new vigour, primarily at Shakespeare’s hands.

Scholars attribute at least 1,700 new English words to Shakespeare.

According to the Shakespeare scholar and editor Jonathan Bate: “He gave us such verbs as “puke,” “torture,” “misquote,” “gossip,” “swagger,” “blanket” (Poor Tom’s “blanket my loins” in Lear), and “champion” (Macbeth’s “champion me to the utterance”). He invented the nouns “critic,” “mountaineer,” “pageantry,” and “eyeball”; the adjectives “fashionable,” “unreal,” “blood-stained,” “deafening,” “majestic,” and “domineering”; the adverbs “instinctively” and “obsequiously” in the sense of “behaving in the appropriate way to render obsequies for the dead.”

Most of us probably quote him unconsciously almost every day. Shakespearean phrases that have become commonplace, from Hamlet alone, include ‘cruel to be kind’, ‘mind’s eye’, ‘never a borrower nor a lender be’, ‘hoist by his own petard’, ‘north by northwest’, ‘to the manner born’, and ‘to thine own self be true’, to name just a few.

Less than a decade after Shakespeare’s death, the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America. They were on the run from the prevailing culture of Jacobean England, but they took with them the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible.  Some words from that time – ‘dove’ for ‘dived’, ‘gotten’ for ‘got’-  survived there while dying out in England. But many, many, new words grew in the new soil, and in regions of America, languages like French and Spanish further enriched the vocabulary. You could say that Shakespeare planted the field, but they took it to harvest, because it was the spread of English through North America which sealed the language – as we see now – as the world’s dominant tongue.

It’s thrived in many soils, but it’s in India that McCrum finds the strongest evidence that it’s English, and not the restricted vocabulary of Globish, that will be the key to economic survival in a globalised world. He takes us inside businesses – and not only call centres – where fluency in English is the key to what the novelist Aravind Adiga called “outsourcing companies that virtually run America now”.

Because English is currently so dominant, McCrum’s book occasionally takes on an almost triumphalist air reminiscent of British Imperial history books.

But when you see a country like Rwanda switching its official language from French to English (in 2008) so it can better trade with a wider market, it’s hard not to argue that by the simple accident of being colonised from London and not from Paris, Australia drew the lucky ticket in the linguistic lottery.

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31 comments

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    • T.Chong says:

      08:22am | 26/05/10

      For many years US Marines unofficial motto was “speak English ,or die”. - helps explain the world dominance of English - its what the US speaks.

    • TheRealDave says:

      10:10am | 26/05/10

      Apart from a couple of dots in the South Pacific that ended up in US administration, I can’t recall any countries the US Marine Corps has converted to English by the sword.

      Let me think…Lebanon - nope, France/Germany (WW1) - nope, Japan - nope, Iraq - nope, Vietnam - nope, Korea - nope, the Barbary Pirates - nope, Afghanistan - nope.

      Could you help me out here?

    • Thomas G says:

      10:23am | 26/05/10

      Are you all there?  Did the USA have an empire?  No.  English is widely spoken due to the massive size and influence of the British Empire (of which the US was once a part).

      There is no evidence whatsoever of the US having any influence on the dominance of English.  They have not even influenced their close neighbours to speak it.  Hope this isn’t your usual logic but reading some of your other nutty posts I fear it is.

    • S.L says:

      11:07am | 26/05/10

      Do you call that garbled rubbish they speak in the USA English? Could have fooled me!

    • marley says:

      11:49am | 26/05/10

      Mmm. Been thinking about your point.  Most of Canada speaks English - but it’s not because it’s next door to the USA, it’s because it was colonized (or at least most of it was) by the English and especially the Scots. Same thing holds for the English-speaking Caribbean nations.  For better or worse, I rather think the spread of English has more to do with the British Empire than the US Marines.

    • T. Chong says:

      12:31pm | 26/05/10

      Real Dave andThomas G- simply stating what was a common T-Shirt type slogan sported by US personel, during’80s-‘90s,  Not arguing anything else about US military or invasions etc.
      I think the predominance of US culture, TV has helped entrench English.

    • shabangabang says:

      12:43pm | 26/05/10

      Thomas,
      I think of late the USA has been vital to the importance of English being an important language. All technologies they have developed have been designed in English.
      All electronics code the designed was designed in English. (and binary)
      They represent 25% of the global economy. If you wish to do business with them, you need to be able to communicate with them. That is done primarily in English.
      As to whether the US has had an empire or not, no other nation on earth has had as much global influence as they have, militaristically, economically or diplomatically.  Forget Rome, they only covered Europe, The Middle East area and Northern Africa. 3m sq/miles in total. That is the area of the USA contiguous states.
      The USA is an empire and have been since WWII, but unlike other empires before them, once they defeat their rivals they befriend them, rather than beating them into submission.(Japan, Germany for example)

    • Saskia says:

      03:13pm | 26/05/10

      shagangabang - care to let us know where the German and Japanese empires were???  Both fought in a war but hardly had empires!

      Given that the British are responsible for inventing most of the worlds technology and were the first to the industrial revolution plus had the worlds largest and prob happiest empire that may be a reason why English is so widely spoken - not to mention they are the financial hub of Europe and have been the worlds longest democracy, biggest navy etc etc.

      The USA are not the reason English is widespread!  The English gave English to the USA!

      The logic here is bizarre!

    • Justan Oz says:

      05:44pm | 26/05/10

      Shabangabang-you are spot on,it is the power and might of the U.S.A. in the past century that has made english so popular.The whole world has had to deal with them!                                                        Saskia-,have you not heard of the German colonies in Africa-what about German New Guinea..

    • A dose of Reality says:

      12:33am | 27/05/10

      Saskia,

      Germany was an empire in that it was consisting of quite a number of individual Principalities, republics, Kingdoms and Dukedoms when first formed.  These individual “countries” are now a federation of sovereign states (rather than empire).

      Japan has been unified as an empire for thpousands of years - but this does not alter the fact that it was once too a collection of seperate, sovereign entities.

      Much of this is terminology, of course, as the UK could be termed the English empire - as it consists of 4 “kingdoms” - but is referred to differently to give the impression of equality.

      Empires don’t always have to be ancient and gone, they are a political construct.

    • Feral Wombat says:

      04:20am | 27/05/10

      Saskia

      “care to let us know where the German and Japanese empires were? Both fought in a war but hardly had empires.”

      If anyone else had posted that I would have presumed it was satire.

      Germany’s colonies included Namibia, Togoland, Cameroon, Rwanda (they nicked it from Belgium), New Guinea as well as Nauru, Samoa and numerous other islands in the Pacific. They lost the lot in 1920 but were in the process of building a much bigger and better empire when it all went pear-shaped in 1945.

      As for the Japanese not having an empire, try telling that to the Chinese, Koreans and Mongolians. In China, the defeat of the Japanese in 1945 after nearly 50 years of occupation is still seen as a great victory of the heroic communist soldiers (most of whom didn’t even have guns).

    • malheureuxmaus says:

      08:35am | 26/05/10

      Fabulous article - probably one of the best I’ve ever read on this site.

    • Cat says:

      09:21am | 26/05/10

      This is why, although Asian languages are important, they should not be considered as the most important languages to teach in Australian schools. Business in Asia is often done with more than one country. English is the language used but it is important to understand how it is used. 
      We can concentrate on a small core of Asian language speakers for diplomatic purposes and for cultural exchanges. 
      If we want more Australians to become bilingual then we will concentrate on our community languages as well as French (still a language in widespread use), Spanish of one sort or another (spoken by 20% of the world as a first or second language and across a wide area), Arabic and Swahili and their dialects.  We will actually be able to communicate with many more and much more diverse section of the world’s population than we will if we concentrate on Japanese and Mandarin. The latter are often so poorly taught students end up learning very little and rapidly forget it.

    • Matt Stewart says:

      12:55pm | 27/05/10

      Mandarin is spoken extensively throughout Asia, particularly Southeast Asia.  You don’t need English to do business.

      Australia has little comparative advantage learning spanish.  All those spanish speakers you refer to are in South America and the North Americans have more opportunity to learn the langauge and to engage in business with them.

      The Mandarin speaking world is on our doorstep.  I do agree with you about Arabic, Swahili and Japanese, and the fact that Mandarin is generally poorly taught.  That’s a good reason to improve the way we teach it, not to stop teaching it.

      I can’t help but wonder if the Chinese will eventually ditch their ridiculous hieroglyphic language and move exclusively to pin yin.  It would certainly have advantages.

    • James Y says:

      10:27am | 26/05/10

      China is aiming to have all children speak English within a few years time.  As several senior official there told me ‘don’t bother learning Chinese - we are going to speak English’.

      English will dominate the planet.  The Anglo-Saxons might be out-numbered but they definitely have won the worlds culture wars (with a bit of help from the Romans and Vikings along the way)!

    • Matt Stewart says:

      12:45pm | 27/05/10

      Of course they don’t want you to learn ‘Chinese’.  They want to be able to talk among themselves at the negotiating table without you understanding a word.

    • Alex says:

      10:36am | 26/05/10

      It wasn’t a mere lucky coincidence that the English and not the French settled Australia. The French were not great settlers and generally preferred to stick at home. The English were unusually adventurous in that respect. Read James Belich’s “Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglosphere” for more. It’s fascinating.

    • marley says:

      07:42pm | 26/05/10

      Mmm. Quebec.  Louisiana.  West Africa.  Central Africa.  North Africa.  The Caribbean. Indochina. New Caledonia and French Polynesia. 

      I think your argument has a few flaws.

    • Sherekahn says:

      10:39am | 26/05/10

      This headline poses a question.
      “The expulsion of an Israeli diplomat this week took me back more than a quarter of a century, to the expulsion of the Soviet “diplomat” Valery Ivanov in 1983. Ivanov had been fingered as a KGB spy, and he was being thrown out for attempting to influence a senior A.L.P. figure, David Combe.”
      Is it true that Mossad have more spies worldwide today than the KGB did at the height of Russian Communism?  Surely, if so, it is very sinister and counter productive to a peaceful future.
      Zionism has existed perhaps since the “dispersion”.  Unfortunately, since finally succeeding, it has become non-secular.  It is therefore little different from Al-Qaeda the Muslim equivalent.
      Israel, to succeed must become one secular nation inclusive of all Religions and all local nationalities.  It could then expand to fill the whole of the land from the Lebanon border to the Jordanian border to the Egyptian border.
      They could all live peacefully.

    • S.L says:

      11:19am | 26/05/10

      Your comment
      Now what language could be called Australian?
      To pronounce something as “somethink?”
      To pronounce Bathurst as Bath-Hurst? (or is that just a Victorian habit?)
      Or to pronounce Castlemaine as Casselmaine? 
      The Poms refer to our speak as (and I hate the expression) Strien! 
      I heard the actor Michael Cain interviewed recently and he explained the Australian accent was actually cockney 200 years ago and our isolation over the early years kept it where they didn’t.

    • S Patty says:

      12:01pm | 26/05/10

      I think Cain has it wrong there, although it is a common misconception - ie the cockney only heritage of our accent. I think you will find there is a lot of Irish accent involved too - and even some words - eg Chook. Our Irish heritage (just take a walk through Norfolk Island cemetery) is often overlooked as it pre-dates the large influx of Irish to the US and is simply two long ago for most memories. With time we have almost forgotten and for many it is easier to use the very generic term - British - to describe out past. And of course the term British does not solely refer to the English, although many might like to this so.

      We most certainly have our own way of pronouncing words and our own spelling as well. This is valid and natural.

    • Sherekahn says:

      12:02pm | 26/05/10

      Very possible, the one word that Aussies of all ranks seem unable to get right is:  OUR, they pronounce it OW home, etc.
      On ABC National I asked the Linguistic Professor about this and he lost his cool with me saying “it is nothing more than a dialect!”

    • marley says:

      07:44pm | 26/05/10

      Sherkhan - possibly true, but then the English cannot pronounce “idea” - it always comes out “idear”.

    • Sherekahn says:

      07:36am | 27/05/10

      No marley, I think it comes out as “ideah”.  Ah? Ah?

    • Chris says:

      11:30am | 26/05/10

      I could not agree with Cat more. We should not be wasting valuable education time trying to teach Asian languages to a majority. Leave it for a minority who are actually interested in learning them and teach the rest something about more diverse cultures. If we want children to be bilingual teach them languages more closely related to English.  Let’s also teach them much more about the world beyond Australia and Asia. Their lack of knowledge about the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, South America and, above all, Europe is frightening. How can we live in harmony with the world if we isolate ourselves? That is what the Asia focus is doing - and it is getting worse under Rudd and Gillard.

    • weizhen says:

      02:50pm | 26/05/10

      Kids in Asian countries are told to learn English is only because English is the most spoken language at international conventions. There’s a purpose behind it. There’s no point to ask Aussie kids to do the same because unless they live in Asian countries for a long period of time, there’s no need to speak any of their language.  We only need one common language on this plenet that everyone agrees to communicate with when needed. Let’s not make simple thing complicated. Forcing kids here to learn asian language has no point whatsoever. In fact, the popularization of computers has already determined that english will be the one to be picked as computer language is english based and it’s in every infrustructure of our digitalized world. For english speakers who wish to be biligual, they should have their freedom to chose whatever lanuage that interests them most as they are not obligated to learn the universal language English which they already speak.

    • Timmo says:

      06:32am | 27/05/10

      So many Languages and not enough time!

    • Marnie says:

      09:43am | 27/05/10

      I learnt Japanese right up to Uni and found it a great way to explore English ironically. It was a great way to learn about other cultures, challenge yourself and talk to the locals when I went there. Although the applications in Australia are limited, I don’t regret learning it.

    • verdiman says:

      07:09pm | 27/05/10

      to Feralwombat. Germany did not nick Rwanda from Belgium. The Belgians conquered it from Germany in WWI. The Germans also had Tanganyika (todays Tanzania).

    • Feral Wombat says:

      05:59am | 28/05/10

      verdiman

      You are correct. I had thought that the Belgians had control of Rwanda both before and after the period of German colonisation but apparently I was mistaken.

 

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