This sounds like the kind of thing that our own Michael Jennings is fond of saying:
“I was recently waiting for a flight in Delhi, when I overheard a conversation between a Spanish UN peacekeeper and an Indian soldier. The Indian spoke no Spanish; the Spaniard spoke no Punjabi. Yet they understood one another easily. The language they spoke was a highly simplified form of English, without grammar or structure, but perfectly comprehensible, to them and to me. Only now do I realise that they were speaking “Globish”, the newest and most widely spoken language in the world.”
That’s journalist Ben Macintyre, quoted by Robert McCrum, in a recent Guardian piece about the global evolution of the English language. But, McCrum then asks, will English, having spread so widely, and like Latin before it, then fragment into distinct languages? Or will the effect of what is loosely called globalisation mean that enough English speakers who start with their local variant of English will want then to move towards a more internationally tradeable, so to speak, version of English, and make the effort? Will they try to add some of that grammar and structure that Ben Macintyre spoke of? And will global standard English, particularly as spoken by the more globe-trotting sort of American and in due course by most Anglos, itself hold out its hand, as it were, making its own effort, and come half way to meet Globish, to ensure that English, although changing faster than ever before, nevertheless remains one language, or at least one linguistic continuum? Will English, in other words, keep on pulling itself together? Note that Ben Macintyre had no problem understanding the Globish that he heard in Delhi, and would presumably have no problem speaking like that.
My guess is that there are powerful unifying forces at work here, as well as fragmenting forces. What follows began life as a separate posting, and was mostly written before I encountered the above article. Consider the way that the English names of cities in the east have taken to changing themselves.
I’m thinking of how Pekin turned into Beijing, and, in India, how Mumbai and Chennai stopped being Bombay and … Madras, was it? Well, if the Indian Premier League television cricket coverage is anything to go by, there’s another Indian city name change in the pipeline. Bangalore is soon going to be called “Bengaluru”. The Bangalore IPL cricket team was still,this year, being called the “Bangalore” Royal Challengers. But the city itself was already being called by the commentators: Bengaluru. Most tellingly, on the map that the IPL television output uses to show where the next game was being played, it said Bengaluru, not Bangalore. Next year, will the team be the Bengaluru Royal Challengers? Or perhaps the Bengaluru something else completely? I shall be most interested to see. And I’m guessing: yes. Apparently, this switch was “officially” decided upon in 2007.
I often hear grumbles about this stuff from fellow Brits. After all, we don’t have to call Paris “Paree”, or Munich “Munchen”, or Rome “Roma”, just because the people who live in Paris and Munich and Rome might prefer us to do that, what with Paree and Munchen and Roma being what they call these cities themselves. So, why do we put up with this Beijing Mumbai crap from the Indians and the Chinese?
There is a definite whiff of post-colonial guilt about the difference in response. When we Brits call Paree “Paris”, we are not humiliating defenceless tribesmen whose country we used to lord it over, so we feel no need to bend over backwards to be linguistically polite, to salve past wounds. I’m sure there is a bit of that going on.
But the case of India makes me suspect that something else is also going on, less guilt-based and more real. In India, English is very widely spoken, especially by well educated people. One of the biggest reasons for the rise of private sector education in India is that Indian state schools often insist on not teaching in English, but Indians who are ambitious for their children know that learning English is an essential part of making it, in India and in the world. Certainly the cricket commentaries coming out of India of those IPL games are all presented in English, with only the odd smattering of what I take to be Hindi or Gujerati, when they are interviewing a cricketer who is much more fluent in Hindi or Gujerati than he is in English, and the occasional insertion of what seem to be local catch phrases in the local lingo, often greeted with loud cheers from the crowd. Nevertheless, India, and especially Indian cricket, is a predominantly English-speaking affair, or so it would seem. The big name Indian cricketers all seem to speak English fluently, albeit with their own distinctly Indian accents.
Brits talking about Paris, and French people talking about Paree, are two ways of saying Paree/Paris that happen inside two separate linguistic bubbles, so to speak. Hence there is no tendency for the one usage to collide with the other, and for one of them, potentially, to win. When a Frenchman fluent in English talks, in English about Paris, he says “Paris”, just as I say Paree when talking about Paris in French. I also, when speaking French, say “Londres” rather than London. But Bombay and Mumbai are two usages that happen within the same language sphere, the Anglosphere. Someone like me, who had got used to “Bombay”, constantly got used to listening to and reading about “Mumbai” in settings where everything else made sense, except that. What’s this “Mumbai” thing?, I found myself asking. Pretty soon I learned. And the IPL cricket commentaries, for me, settled the matter.
Going back to that post-colonial guilt vibe, I don’t doubt also that plenty of Indians are rather pissed off about how Bombay is now Mumbai. I am sure there are local nationalistic political considerations at work here, which not all Indians are happy about. In fact I know there are. But that’s irrelevant. That “Mumbai” confuses Englishmen like me is surely, for many Indians, a feature not a bug. Mumbai is India taking charge of its own destiny, instead of still having it dictated by now-absent foreigners. If that’s about right as a description of the local politics of this, then I get why that would be. But even if you think that Bombay has changed into Mumbai for bad and bombastic and shallowly nationalistic reasons, change to Mumbai is nevertheless what Bombay has done, or been made to do.
Single names, within a single language area, are, I suggest, like natural monopolies. One name is bound the win, and the only point at issue is: which one? If Indians, for whatever reason, good, bad or ridiculous, have decided that Bombay will be Mumbai from now on, or that Chennai will be Chennai rather than Madras, or that Bangalore will also now change to Bengaluru, then there is really little point in Englishmen like me trying to resist this arrangement. If I want to watch the IPL on my television, and I definitely do, then I had better get used to the new names.
As I say, I originally I had no thought of mentioning the debate about Globish, and about whether Globish will break the English language into pieces or merely change it rather a lot, in a posting about Indian names for cities. But it seems to me that what I had already written about these place name changes is relevant to what McCrum writes about. Note that it was television that got me used to Mumbai rather than Bombay, and which will get me used to Bengaluru instead of Bangalore. No IPL cricket on the telly (IPL on British telly being a classic manifestation of globalisation), and no regular dealings between Indians and Brits of any other sort, and we Brits would just carry on calling Bombay Bombay, and ignore any Indian changes to such words. But such an isolated world is not the one we now live in.
Latin, I surmise, fragmented because the Roman empire itself fragmented. Europe had no televised broadcasts from the Coliseum to hold things together,linguistically. True, the British Empire is over, as a centralised political entity. But it has not fragmented in the way that the Roman Empire did. “Globalisation,” Roman style, got weaker during the so called Dark Ages, and with it the hegemonic hold of Latin as a single language faded and local variants of Latin mutated into lots of local languages, even though the posh version of Latin as enshrined in old writings by long dead Romans survives to this day (even though nobody is very sure how to pronounce it). But in the absence of such a general civilisational retreat, I now surmise that the story of English will go differently to the story of Latin. I am not saying that there won’t be such a retreat, again, although I personally see little sign of such a general retreat now. I’m just saying that if such retreat doesn’t happen, then surely English will remain, approximately speaking, English. It will still be recognisably one language.
I’d also say that if the day ever does dawn when those Frenchies start seriously telling us Anglos that from now on we must say Paree rather than Paris, even when talking English, that will be a sign that English is starting seriously to conquer France. French annoyance about “Paris” would arise because French people are talking English on a massive scale, and are finding themselves all having to say Paris all the time. Zute alors! Let us all say Paree! All as in us and you Anglo bastards,who all now speak the same universal language. (If the French speak it, it must be universal.) Ditto if the Germans start demanding Munchen instead of Munich, although I wouldn’t put it past the Germans to change Munchen to Munich, even in Munchen, in order to keep in line with their new language.
Not that I think it will actually be happening any time soon, but I would gladly see Paris totally seen off by Paree, if that was part of the linguistic price demanded from us Anglos, in exchange for our language conquering France.
Further surmise. Could that Pekin to Beijing change mean that English is now, already, in the process of conquering China?