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Books

What's happening to English?

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A meditation on the English language, about where it's been and where it's going.

Idon't own a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad or a Sony Reader, and haven't hankered for any of them. But there's something about Robert McCrum's new book, Globish, that made me yearn to click through rather than turn its pages.

That's not meant to be a putdown, or at least not much of one. McCrum's literary columns are plumped with real learning, and they have a dire, gloomy kind of bite. His books are mostly just as good, especially his 2004 biography of P G Wodehouse. McCrum is not especially funny, but he seems to compose his lightly charred sentences the same way Wodehouse roasted his.

That is, as Wodehouse put it, "I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit."

Globish would be a natural e-book, partly because of its subject matter. It's a meditation on the English language, about where it's been and where it's going. And if English words are going anywhere, they're going online. Globish seems e-bookish for other reasons, too. It's smart but casual, more gastropub than white-linen dining;the author seems to have written it with his left hand. It revisits material from The Story of English (1986), which McCrum wrote with William Cran and Robert MacNeil. Some of this new book is likely to seem dated before too long, but part of the point of Globish is that English mutates and spreads as quickly as those zombies in the movie 28 Days Later sprint down a freeway.

McCrum stands back and witnesses with awe the language's myriad offshoots, like Manglish (Malay and English) and Konglish (English in South Korea). He notes that in Mumbai, people speak a "mixture of Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi and, finally, English. " Salman Rushdie has coined a delightful acronym for this Mumbai mix: it is "Hug-me. " English is the world's aspirational language, the lingua franca of international culture and commerce. Anyone who wishes truly to speak to the world must master it. During the crisis in Georgia in 2008, Russia lost the propaganda war for days, McCrum writes, because it did not address the world in English, while the canny Georgians did.

One of McCrum's predictions in Globish is that English is about to make a "declaration of independence from the linguistic past. " English is shedding many of its colonial and imperial connotations and is becoming what anthropologist Benedict Anderson calls a type of "post-clerical Latin. " The road signs on the information highway are written in English. Eighty percent of the world's home pages are composed in some kind of it. Texting is playfully bending English by the nanosecond. LOL and GR8 and BTW are becoming more international, and more beloved, than Coca-Cola or James Bond ever were. As the increasingly harried editors of the OED might put it, OMG.

McCrum is a close observer of why English has proved so sturdy and so vital. As a language, it is, he tells us (at least four times) "contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive. " It is also "informal, demotic, vigorous and profane. " It is surely also mad, crazy, sexy and cool, but he does not quite go there. More helpfully, McCrum notes that, unlike many languages, English has always gained strength and nuance from the bottom rather than being imposed or filtering down from the top of society.

McCrum has a playful, allusive mind, and it's a pleasure to watch him link, say, the seventh-century English poet Caedmon to Seamus Heaney, or Mark Twain to The Simpsons. He is comfortable with high and low. The story of the English language is a good one, and McCrum adroitly touches all the bases, from Old English to Middle English, from Gutenberg to Noah Webster, from Thomas Jefferson to V S Naipaul. He charts dozens of wars, revolutions and conquests in between. This material is not dull, and it will be a smart kind of freshman survey course to many. But McCrum's heart is in the newer material, his assessment of our contagious, adaptable, populist, subversive language around 2010.

If McCrum has fears about the dominance of English corrupting other cultures and squelching their tongues, he mostly plays them down. He is more interested in our language's ability to strike hammer blows for liberty, for the idea that people and ideas should mingle and be free.

His book has a funny, lovely bit about a company that offered classics rewritten in telephone texting format. Hamlet's famous line was rendered "2b?Ntb? = ?" Reading that may rankle. But as McCrum writes, "In a world where 175, 000 new blogs are launched every day, to argue about the cultural validity of text-Shakespeare is a bit like arguing about your bill in the saloon bar of the Titanic. " If a screen version of Globish had contained a link to some text-Shakespeare, I would have clicked on over for a moment. When it comes to language, 2b always trumps Ntb.

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