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'Globish' and the open-sourcing of English

This form of 'English lite' is out from under the control of native speakers; does that matter?

By Ruth Walker / June 30, 2010



Do you speak Globish – "global English"? Can you stand it when others do?

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Globish is a much simplified form of English used, especially in business, where neither party is a native speaker of English. Globish is how a Venezuelan talks to a Chinese, or a Turk to an Algerian.

Unlike "Spanglish," for instance, it's not a meld of English and something else. And unlike Basic English or Esperanto, Globish arose naturally.

Its rise would seem to illustrate the saying that Britain and the United States are two countries separated by a common language. Jean-Paul Nerrière, the former IBM executive credited with coining the term "Globish," noticed that at his company's international conferences, Americans and Britons would tend to be paralyzed by the endless minor differences between their two brands of English. Meanwhile, people from other parts of the world would plunge ahead into conversation with one another, heedless of their bad grammar and limited vocabulary.

I'm not sure I buy this. Somehow the idea of an American at a conference hesitating to chat up a British contact for fear the latter would say something like "different to" seems unlikely. On the other hand, anyone who has ever traveled outside his or her linguistic comfort zone has probably found how helpful just a few words in a common language can be.

British language maven Robert McCrum has called Globish "the worldwide dialect of the third millennium." A blogger riffing on Mr. McCrum compared Globish to "open source" software – available for anyone to adapt to his own uses.

He added, "I think that if Globish were to be defined by the International community as a whole, this would greatly help to abstract the language from the western, English-speaking culture."

But language and culture are so closely linked that culture-free language would be like tasteless food or colorless paint. That idea of ownership, however, is important.

"Anglophones no longer own English," the Toronto Star quoted Mr. Nerrière as saying last year. "It's now owned by people in Singapore, Ulan Bator, Montevideo, Beijing, and elsewhere."

Anglophone isn't used very much in American English, but it's common in French and in officially bilingual Canada. Dictionaries tend to define Anglophone as simply one who speaks English – never mind whether as native tongue or something else.

I first learned Anglophone at summer school at the University of Aix-Marseille in France. For phonetics drills, we were segregated by mother tongue. The idea was that native English speakers face different issues in learning to make the sounds of French than do, say, native speakers of German. So I tend to think of Anglophone as meaning specifically one who makes the sounds of English.

This, I suspect, is how Nerrière understands it, too. His book, "Don't Speak English, Parlez Globish," was a bestseller in France. His codification of Globish has a vocabulary of just 1,500 words – only a fraction of the 615,000 or so of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Globish, Iman Kurdi wrote in the Arab News, "is based on short sentences, simple grammar, repetition and the avoidance of complex syntax. It is rather ugly, clumsy and certainly painful to the ears of native English speakers. But," he continued, "it is also democratic and accessible.... It is something to get you by."

Globish isn't pretty. But it works.

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