The Observer associate editor McCrum (My Year Off: Rediscovering Life After a Stroke, 2008, etc.) rehearses the history of the English language, from Britannia to Bollywood, focusing on how it has transformed from one island’s language to “Globish,” a version of the language used by billions worldwide.
The author, who co-wrote the book and subsequent TV series The Story of English (both in 1986), begins with a definition of Globish, then moves through English, American and world history at a breathtaking pace, pausing only occasionally to elaborate on publications and people he identifies as key to the eventual hegemony of English. Among the former are the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, both of which influenced centuries of speakers and writers. The author looks at Gutenberg and Caxton, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and of course Shakespeare, “a master of artistic synthesis.” McCrum then focuses on the New World, providing accolades for Thomas Paine, Noah Webster, Abraham Lincoln—whose Gettysburg Address the author greatly admires—and Mark Twain, whom the author characterizes as a “founding father of the world’s English” because of his recognition of the power of common speech. The author also examines English and the slave trade, noting that captains on the Middle Passage separated slaves who spoke the same language, making English a pressing necessity for them to learn. McCrum covers Dr. Johnson, Dickens, the rise of the British Empire and the spread of English into India, Australia, Africa and elsewhere, spending more time on Winston Churchill and his rhetoric than on any other individual. After the Cold War, it’s Americanization, the Internet, EuroDisney, Thomas Friedman’s flat world and the astonishing datum that there are 175,000 new blogs per day. McCrum ends with extensive looks at modern China and India, where billions are learning English/Globish as a way to improve their economic potential. Still, he cautions, the world has 5,000 individual languages.
Heavy on historical summary yet gripping and profoundly informative.