In The New Republic, John McWhorter reviews Robert McCrum’s bass ackwards book, Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language.
But the central problem is that McCrum’s sense that English is somehow uniquely “direct” and “universal” and therefore well-suited to bestride the world is false. In two ways.
First of all, to the extent that McCrum is taking this from English being light on conjugation suffixes (in the present, just little third-person singular -s) and not having gender (no el sombrero for hat but la luna for moon as in Spanish), you can’t claim that this makes it easier for a language to be universal without looking at the fate of other languages. Russian started as a homely, unwritten Slavic dialect, but is currently spoken by 280 million people, speaking a vast array of indigenous languages natively. Yet Russian is murderously complex – three genders, verbs of pitiless complexity, assorted sounds that are tough to produce, squishy word order, unpredictable accent on words, and on and on. (Of those who have reviewed the book in big venues, I am aware of only TNR’s own Isaac Chotiner as touching on a comparison like the Russian one in his New Yorker review.)
Russians, too, are given to chauvinistic claims about their “great and mighty Russian language,” in which case one could posit that the complexity of the language makes it “mighty” as well as maximally clear. This would make, in the end, about as much sense as claiming that English has gotten around because it’s relatively easy to learn. Both English and Russian have spread the way they have because they were the languages that happened to be spoken by powers that happened to acquire vast amounts of territory.
There is a discussion to be had as to why England (plus America) and Russia have had such lasting influence – but the reasons are about sociohistory and geography, not conjugation. We know this because if there were any meaningful linguistic argument, England and Russia would neatly cancel one another out. Arabs, too, might be perplexed to hear that a language has to be easy – “direct,” as McCrum often has it – to be a vehicle of empire. As anyone who has tried to master it will attest, Arabic is a tough one for foreigners. Yet the region is unrecorded that scoffed “We shall not use this Arabic tongue, as it be too difficult on the tongue to serve as a language of conquest!”
Then McCrum errs in a second way. He misses that to the extent that geopolitical dominance and linguistic structure can be correlated, it’s in that the dominance causes the grammatical simplification, not the other way around. This was even part of English’s history – when Scandinavian Vikings occupied England starting in the eighth century, they produced Old English in a stripped-down fashion just as many of us have produced French and Spanish in classrooms. There were so many of the Vikings that kids heard as much English of this kind as “real” Old English, and in a culture with little schooling or media, this “funny” English became the only English.
McCrum knows this – but misses that it upends his paradigm. The Vikings didn’t pick up English because it was enticingly “universal” – they made it easier by picking it up. To the extent that McCrum may suppose that it was this that kicked off English’s “accessible” phase, we return to Arabic and Russian – universal in their ways despite being un-Vikinged. Sanskrit, Cree, Tagalog and other complex languages also seem to have gotten around – the whole construct McCrum builds just doesn’t work.
Meanwhile, the world over, languages are on the easy side because they happen to have been imposed on a lot of adult foreigners. The lingua franca in Papua New Guinea, for example, is Indonesian, which delights the learner in having no gender, no conjugation, and no Chinese-type tones.
Unfortunately, McWhorter confuses Papua New Guinea, where Tok Pisin is the lingua franca, with West Papua (formerly West Irian), where Indonesian is the lingua franca. Otherwise, he’s right on target.
via Rainy Day