21 June 2010

Globish, Glanglish and Google Translate

There's a new book out about the rise and use of a globalised English, dubbed "Globish":

Globish is a privatised lingua franca, a commercially driven “world language” unencumbered by the utopian programme of Esperanto. As taught by Nerrière’s enterprise, it combines the coarseness of a distended phrase book and the formulaic optimism of self-help texts – themselves a genre characterised by linguistic paucity, catchphrases and religiose simplicity.

I won't be buying it, mostly because I wrote about the rise and use of a globalised English, dubbed "Glanglish", over 20 years ago. It formed the title essay of a book called, with stunning originality, "Glanglish." This is what I wrote:

English has never existed as a unitary language. For the Angles and the Saxons it was a family of siblings; today it is a vast clan in diaspora. At the head of that clan is the grand old matriarch, British English. Rather quaint now, like all aristocrats left behind by a confusing modern world, she nonetheless has many points of historical interest. Indeed, thousands come to Britain to admire her venerable and famous monuments, preserved in the verbal museums of language schools. Unlike other parts of our national heritage, British English is a treasure we may sell again and again; already the invisible earnings from this industry are substantial, and they are likely to grow as more and more foreigners wish at least to brush their lips across the Grande Dame's ring.

One group unlikely to do so are the natural speakers of the tongue from other continents. Led by the Americans, and followed by the Australians, the New Zealanders and the rest, these republicans are quite content to speak English - provided it is their English. In fact it is likely to be the American's English, since this particular branch of the family tree is proving to be the most feisty in its extension and transformation of the language. Even British English is falling in behind - belatedly, and with a rueful air; but compared to its own slim list of neologisms - mostly upper-class twittish words like 'yomping' - Americanese has proved so fecund in devising new concepts, that its sway over English-thinking minds is assured.

An interesting sub-species of non-English English is provided by one of the dialects of modern India. Indian English is not a truly native tongue, if only for historical reasons; and yet it is no makeshift second language. Reading the 'Hindu Times', it is hard to pin down the provenance of the style: with its orotundities and its 'chaps' it is part London 'Times' circa 1930; with its 'lakhs' it is part pure India.

Whatever it is, it is not to be compared with the halting attempts at English made by millions - perhaps billions soon - whose main interest is communication. Although a disheartening experience to hear for the true-blue Britisher, this mangled, garbled and bungled English is perhaps the most exciting. For from its bleeding hunks and quivering gobbets will be constructed the first and probably last world language. Chinese may have more natural speakers, and Spanish may be gaining both stature and influence, but neither will supersede this mighty mongrel in the making.

English is so universally used as the medium of international linguistic exchange, so embedded in supranational activities like travel - all pilots use English - and, even more crucially, so integral to the world of business, science and technology - money may talk, but it does so in English, and all computer programs are written in that language - that no amount of political or economic change or pressure will prise it loose. Perhaps not even nuclear Armageddon: Latin survived the barbarians. So important is this latest scion of the English stock, that it deserves its own name; and if the bastard brew of Anglicised French is Franglais, what better word to celebrate the marriage of all humanity and English to produce tomorrow's global language than the rich mouthful of 'Glanglish'?

Twenty years on, I now think that the reign of Glanglish/Globish will soon draw to a close, but not because something else will take its place.

The obvious candidate, Chinese, suffers from a huge problem: linguistic degeneracy. By which I mean that a single word - "shi", say - corresponds to over 70 different concepts if you ignore the tones. Even if you can distinguish clearly between the four tones - which few beginners can manage with much consistency - saying the word "shi" will still be much harder to interpret than a similarly-mangled English word, especially for non-native speakers. This makes it pretty useless as a lingua franca, which needs to be both easy to acquire, and easy to understand even by novices.

But something is happening that I hadn't allowed for two decades ago: machine translation. Just look at Google Translate, which I use quite a lot to provide rough translations of interesting stuff that I find on non-English language sites. It's pretty good, getting better - and free. I'm sure that Google is working on producing something similar for spoken language: imagine what a winner Google Voice Translate for Android would be.

So instead of Globish or Glanglish, I think that increasingly people will simply speak their own language, and let Google et al. handle the rest. In a way, that's great, because it will allow people to communicate directly with more or less anyone anywhere. But paradoxically it will probably also lead to people becoming more parochial and less aware of cultural differences around the globe, since few will feel the need to undergo that mind-expanding yet humbling experience of trying to learn a foreign language - not even Glanglish.

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Anonymous said...

I admit that any non-artificial lingua franca such as English represents a handicap for non-native speakers. In a global, some may argue, imperial context, this usually favours original primary speakers even if they may be mediocre compared to others.
However, relying inter-cultural communication solely on an automatic (and privative) basis, I do not think is good either*
I believe multilingualism is the way to go. If people learn more languages, they may be more open to understand more cultures (points of view), and the underlying society is likely to be a bit freer.

My two cents.

* Open-source based automatic translation system: http://www.apertium.org/

Glyn Moody said...

@toniher: I agree multilingualism would be a great solution, but I can't see it happening.

Thanks for that link - that's a new site to me.

Bill Chapman said...

You cited the following: Globish is a privatised lingua franca, a commercially driven “world language” unencumbered by the utopian programme of Esperanto.

You don't mention Esperanto again, yet I'm sure it deserves more attention - I've been using it for very practical reasons for many years.

I'm not at all convinced that technology is anyhere near solving the problem of two people who have no language in common yet desperately want to communicate. Maybe in the next fifty years ...

I'll stick with Esperanto.

Stephen Pollei said...

Esperanto is very Europe centered language.
http://www.lojban.org/ is more culturally neutral. However it's also very small scale at this time.

Glyn Moody said...

@Bill: I'm certainly not recommending Globish.... and as far as Esperanto is concerned, it seems a shame to learn an artificial language when there are 6000 real ones to choose from...

Glyn Moody said...

@Stephen: yes, that's part of the problem: you can always come up with new invented languages that are better according to some metric....

Again, that's why I like natural ones - they are non-arbitrary in that respect...