The Global Linguistic Revolution

The Global Linguistic Revolution

The Observer, where I work, is housed in a flashy modern glass cube in central London, overlooking Regent’s Canal. The crystal cliff face of the newsroom reflects sky and water, jet travel and chugging barges. The English language my co-workers and I use also reflects a duality: Part of it is grounded in dictionaries and traditional grammar, while another, more modern part reflects a global dialect energized by the digital revolution.

A sign of the times, not so very long ago, was a memo the Observer’s staff received from our editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger. His note contained 10 propositions about the implications of a global readership: "There is no such thing as Abroad," it began. "Most of our readers are ‘foreign’." Alluding to the 50 million visitors who access our website from across the globe each day, the memo also issued a declaration fraught with significance for the deployment of language across the world today.  "No economy is an island," declared Rusbridger. "Technology is global."

We’re not just seeing a revolution in the newspaper business — we’re seeing a linguistic revolution. English is running riot across the globe, becoming, in the words of anthropologist Benedict Anderson, "a kind of global-hegemonic post-clerical Latin." From my British perspective, this Olympic year has exposed variants of our language to a global audience of billions. The ups-and-downs of the U.S. presidential race, the dramas of Kate’s pregnancy, the plot twists of Downton Abbey: These political and cultural landmarks are now being retailed to a world audience.

The hubbub of the world’s incessant conversation has sparked the creation of a new language. This emerging lingua franca, what I call Globish, is the most vivid and universal cultural phenomenon the world has ever known. Its expressions have a technicolor exuberance: "Glassy" and "fundoo" — meaning "wanting a drink" and "excellent," respectively — dramatize the impact of technological and social change on the Indian subcontinent. So do "cent per cent" for "100 percent," "badmash" for "naughty," and "eve teasing" for "sexual harassment."

We must recognize this awesome fact: For the first time in human history, it’s possible for one language to be transmitted, and received, across the whole planet. Moreover, it’s not just a linguistic story.

In India, after half a century of trying to replace English with Hindi (inadvertently creating "Hinglish"), the current government has finally embraced the goal of establishing English teaching in all primary schools. It could be a liberating phenomenon: As Zareer Masani writes in the current issue of Prospect, in India there is "a growing conviction among India’s most disadvantaged communities that the English language could be their salvation from poverty and social exclusion."

Globish can spark conflict. For me, one milestone was reached in 2005, with a riot. In September that year, the Jutland Post, a Danish magazine, published some cartoons poking fun at the Prophet Mohammed. Parts of the Muslim community went wild — there were worldwide demonstrations, terrible violence, and more than 100 people were killed. The most bizarre response was a protest by Muslim fundamentalists outside the Danish embassy in London. Chanting in English, the protestors carried slogans like "Freedom of Expression Go To Hell" and (my favorite) "Down with Free Speech" What more telling commentary on the power and influence of global English could there be?

Globish also defines the products we buy and the ads we see on TV. It can be seen, for instance, at work in a new, non-alcoholic drink, Kidsbeer, sold to children in Japan with the questionable English slogan "Even Kids Can’t Stand Life Unless They Have a Drink."

Is this astonishing cultural and linguistic revolution that’s happening around us a creature of globalization, or does globalization owe some of its energy and resilience to Globish? The answer, probably, is a bit of both. What’s not in doubt is that the phenomenon of the world’s English is redefining how the world communicates — and even helping to shape power politics in parts of the world where English is not the native language.

In both the 2009 Iranian protests and the Arab Spring, protesters consciously deployed Globish to dramatize their plight for a global audience. In the Syrian town of Kafranbel, for example, an anti-Assad protest lampooned the president’s own jocular emails about the craziness of English vernacular, wielding a poster that read, "There is no ham in hamburger, but let’s face it, there is an Ass in Assad." This Globish wordplay is aimed not at Sunnis or Shiites — it is targeting Americans, British, and the broader English-speaking world from Sydney to Saskatchewan, which now communicates at the click of a mouse.

Driven by the Internet revolution, the world’s English is spreading at warp speed: Electronic time is somehow faster than real time. New words — the very topical "omnishambles" for example, meaning a total breakdown — whizz into circulation and then drift off into oblivion. Gone, but not forgotten: The Observer has calculated that the realm of the World Wide Web that has been indexed accounts for around 40 billion pages. 80 percent of this archive is in some kind of English. No wonder that conventional dictionaries struggle to keep up with this linguistic maelstrom.

This may seem alarming, but it’s intrinsic to our shared language. The critic Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, almost two hundred years back, that English was "the sea which receives tributaries from every region under heaven." Today, the numberless manifestations of Globish culture surround us like the sea. And like the waters of the deep, it is full of mysteries. Why do some Germans idolize William Shakespeare? Why does a leading Japanese artist, Norio Ueno, copy random English words and phrases into his otherwise abstract art works? Globish is in a state of ungovernable flux, at the mercy of fashion, whim and caprice, adapting like mercury to every new contour and obstacle.