Has English become Globish or is this gibberish?

While its native speakers wane in influence, their language has taken on life well beyond their borders.

An Indian Sikh reads newspapers displaying front page headlines and photographs of US president-elect Barack Obama in Amritsar on November 6, 2008. World leaders hailed Barack Obama's triumph in the US presidential election as the dawn of a new era and called for the global superpower to change the way it does business.   AFP PHOTO/NARINDER NANU

With the British Empire long gone and American hegemony on the wane, English still straddles the globe. But triumphant talk of a world language is still babble, Kanishk Tharoor writes. The consummate imperialist Cecil Rhodes once quipped that to be born an Englishman "is to have won first prize in the lottery of life". From under his pith helmet, the world indeed looked rosy for the English. The British Empire provided its lucky sons with incomparable heft, access and sense of purpose (not to mention earning potential). Those heady imperial days must seem remote for any observer of modern Britain. The country's old industries rot under veils of rust, strife and mistrust tear at its social life, and its place in world politics has shrivelled commensurate to its size as an uncertain, middling power.

But at least one strand of the old boast remains true. While the empire has long gone, its language imperiously straddles the globe. A recent article in The Times reformulated Rhodes' line: "To be born an English-speaker is to win one of the top prizes in life's lottery." Beneath its odour of smugness and self-satisfaction, this claim is undeniably true. English enables a kind of global life that no other modern language can match. Indeed, no other language in any period of history has ever come close to being so fully a medium for global communication. Latin may have bound the antique Mediterranean, French laced together European aristocratic life, and Sanskrit and Persian at different times united the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, but none enjoyed the reach of English.

Thus, the English-speaker can travel the world safe in the knowledge that wherever he or she goes, the chances are good that English signs will greet her at the airport, English-speaking guides will offer their services and a smattering of English words will be understood even in the dustiest street. The recently concluded World Cup offers another example of English's ubiquity. Despite its French acronym and origins, football's governing body, FIFA, requires its coterie of international referees to speak English. So in one semi-final match, an Uzbek referee harangued (and was harangued by) Uruguayan and Dutch players in the only language they shared: English.

In the wake of the British empire, and even in the ostensible twilight of American hegemony, English remains the most international language. More than any other tongue, it offers the tantalising prospect of access to the world. This can be a disconcerting and vexing truth. Young-ju, the protagonist of the Korean film Please Teach Me English (2003), agonises over her inability to learn English and to wrestle her mouth around its alien syllables and diphthongs. She bristles at having to learn the language - why is it not enough to know Korean in Korea? - before being seduced onto the path of English fluency by, among other things, a dapper young man and a piglet that recognises the English alphabet. According to Robert McCrum's Globish, 350 million people in China alone are studying English. It is an astronomical figure when one considers there are almost as many people in the process of learning English in China as people around the world who speak Spanish. Current students of English may not be abetted by pedantic farm animals, but they likely share Young-ju's motivation. She and many others want to be able to function in an outward-facing language, embracing the broader possibilities of a "globalised" world knit together by commerce and information.

The shifting geopolitics of the last decade have not left English any less relevant. A lot has been made in some sectors of the introduction of Chinese classes at African schools, as if this augurs the rise of a global challenge to English. But the fact that so many Chinese citizens are learning English should point to China's lack of faith in its own tongue as a language for the world. For all its growing currency, Chinese remains - and will likely remain - at best a regional or national language, opening only limited vistas for its international students. Much like learning other colonial languages, such as Dutch in Indonesia, French in West Africa, or indeed English in early 20th-century India, learning Chinese in, for example, Zimbabwe (where Robert Mugabe has encouraged its study) merely resembles a now-ancient form of bilateral relationship: that between a centre of political, economic and cultural power and its colonial periphery.

By contrast, what remains striking about English in the 21st century is that its continued spread is not necessarily a function of traditional state power. The truest assertion of Globish (subtitled How the English Language Became the World's Language) is that contemporary English has taken a life of its own, one in large part untethered from the driving influence of London and Washington, Wall Street and Hollywood. Where it once helped tie the rest of the world to Anglo-Saxon Britain and North America, English is now the major language of international diplomacy, commerce and cultural exchange in almost all regions and contexts.

In large part, the "story of English" has always been a global one. English emerged in its recognisable form by the 16th century, just as England began to hoist its sails and imagine a life of maritime power. It spread around the world in the wake of colonial expansion, laying firm roots particularly in the Americas. Hardening imperial ideology in the 19th century transformed English into a language of command and "civilisation" in India and elsewhere. The domineering vision behind the British "commonwealth" - an entity that survives today in form, if not substance - was one of English-speaking, English-seeming elites fixed in orbit around London.

Meanwhile, as Europe's powers tore themselves apart in the world wars, American English muscled onto the international stage. Perhaps there was an inkling of this great future in its early days in the clanking printing presses of Boston and Philadelphia. As the future president John Adams observed in 1780: "English is destined to be in the next and succeeding centuries more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age."

The language of Hollywood celluloid and crooning pop stars spread through its own energetic appeal, aided in many places by America's increasingly global profile. American soft and hard power buttressed the relevance of English and solidified its gains in parts of the world that were never colonised by the British. The expansion of the internet in the 1990s was rooted in America, ensuring that American English spread its tentacles even further through the reach of fibre-optic cables. English's current standing is probably more the result of the American 20th century than it is the British 19th century.

This sprawling history of the evolution of English should be fairly familiar to readers. But now we enter the murky territory of the present. The language enjoys unparalleled global currency, even though the rising powers of the 21st century are predominantly non-English speaking (countries like China, Russia, Brazil, and to a lesser extent, in this context, India). This important change speaks to modern English's happily neutral character, its emergence as the most practical medium for certain kinds of conversations and messages, regardless of origin. When businessmen from distant countries meet, they will most likely resort to a form of English, however slow and stumbling. When advertisers conjure slogans to build sleek, global brands, they often choose to plaster pithy English phrases (think of Adidas's "Impossible is nothing") on billboards around the world.

The French marketer Jean-Paul Nerriere referred to this species of English - the diluted kind spoken and recognised by non-native speakers - as "Globish". By Globish, Nerriere only meant a pared-down form of English, a functional pidgin well-suited to facilitating the innumerable interactions of the globalised age. Such an English would be a lingua franca for the world in the truest sense. After all, the original "lingua franca" ("Frankish language") was simply a trading language used in the ports of the Levant during the Renaissance, Italian with a drizzle of Arabic and Turkish. The lingua franca was an unpretentious creole, replacing complexity with bald utility.

In other contexts, however, modern English remains a source of division and, sometimes, stratification. This is precisely because English is not like Nerriere's Globish or the original Levantine lingua franca. It exists around the world as a full, living language. It cannot be so neatly denuded of its frame of reference, its traditions, its style, its wealth of meanings and subtexts, its fundamental depth. A young girl from the southern Mexican state of Chiapas may not need to know much English to appreciate Lady Gaga, but she must know quite a deal more to feel at home amongst the jet-setting upper classes of Mexico City. In many parts of the world (particularly those vast expanses of the earth once under British control), knowledge of English can be a sure sign of status. In India, the children of the elites and the upper middle-class are educated in English-medium schools, while the vast majority of others are not. The latter face numerous disadvantages in the competition for place and standing in India's "globalising" economy; one of these is the gulf between their English and the former's innately more comfortable and worldly English.

Modern English both levels difference and is a marker of difference. English as a simple lingua franca may indeed bind the world closer together, facilitating the sorts of deals and exchanges one reads about in, for example, The Economist. But a hierarchy of sophistication persists; The Economist is written not in Nerriere's Globish, a commercial lingua franca, but rather in English, the language of the business-class lounge and the international conference. One is the transparent vehicle for globalisation, the other is the far more opaque preserve of the globalised elite. Thus it is misleading to imagine the spread of English as a smooth wave engulfing every stubborn mountain in its path. The various "Englishes" in play point instead to the diverse and divergent ways globalisation is experienced.

From Tom Friedman to Clyde Prestowitz, the numerous heralds of the globalised age have a habit of ignoring deep contradictions and incongruences routinely produced by the very phenomenon they champion. The free movement of information and capital across the world only allows a narrative of triumph. In its attempt to explain the ascendance of English as both the enabler and inevitable outcome of globalisation, Robert McCrum's Globish parrots a familiar line. McCrum, a British journalist who previously wrote a history of English, borrows the term Globish from Nerriere to describe modern English and its place in the world. But he loads Globish with a lot more meaning and aspiration.

Long after the death of the British empire, McCrum's idea of Globish is the resplendent successor of the English language, heir to its fundamentally "contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive" traditions. It is energised by and emblematic of globalisation. Where this leaves Globish as a language is anybody's guess. In a bid to make 21st-century English the vehicle of the spirit of the age, McCrum stretches Globish beyond its conceptual breaking point.

In McCrum's account, texting shorthands - "gr8," "lol," "u" - are Globish. The open, democratic nature of the internet somehow epitomises Globish. Wikipedia is an example of "Globish becoming more viral than ever", a particularly odd claim since the online encyclopaedia's diversity of languages diminishes reliance on English. VS Naipaul and Kazuo Ishiguro write in Globish. The "hipster" idioms of Harlem's jazz revolution are precursors of Globish. The appeal of Barack Obama - a "contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive" figure - is Globish. One gets the sense that everything under the sun that is new, fashionable, and vaguely international or multicultural is Globish.

At one point after a typically breathless, Tom Friedmanesque catalogue of global commercial linkages, McCrum reveals all his cards. Globish is "more than just an essential means of communication: it embodies a contemporary aspiration, one that expresses a willingness to innovate, to adapt old uses and to enfranchise new people. Language is intrinsically neutral. The history of the world's English, however, puts it on the side of the individual." Full of both implication and overstatement, this claim only manages to suggest that Globish, in its many bewildering roles, cannot in all sincerity be a language.

If "language is intrinsically neutral" and yet English has an "individualist" nature, then McCrum must in truth be characterising "English speakers". He wags the dog, displacing onto language what is properly the preserve of society and politics. It is a roundabout way of updating the archaic narrative of English "genius" - another word used conspicuously often in the book - for modern times.

This tendency is flagrant in recounting the history of English, a predictable, plodding exercise that occupies the bulk of Globish. An example or two of the many dubious claims in this history will suffice. McCrum lingers on several pivotal events that seem at best tangential to a discussion of language, sometimes directly perpendicular to stressing the importance of English. As more than one critic has pointed out, McCrum should probably have thought twice before celebrating, for example, the drafting of the Magna Carta. The 13th-century document seen as the foundation of English freedoms was written in the exclusive Latin of the elite, not the "contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive" English of the people.

In a similar vein, McCrum routinely contrasts the democratic tradition of English with that of the haughty, authoritarian French. If it did not reveal glaring blind spots in his selective history, one could simply dismiss this habit as indicative of a crusty English contempt for the French. English is fundamentally "ebullient," "raucous," "anarchic" and "popular," as opposed to the "sophisticated ancien regime disdain" of French. The influence of French "would always be top-down and not, like English, bottom-up". But French, not English, was the language of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the language of a revolution that beheaded monarchy and aristocracy - how much more "bottom-up" can you get? - and inspired dreamers around the world. Indeed, one could argue that while French filled the hearts of idealistic rebels, English was being carefully crafted into an idiom of control in fledgling colonies like India: the language of imperial command, not free-spirited revelry.

The lesson here is not that French is intrinsically more democratic than English. That would be a ludicrous claim. Rather, it is that forcing adjectives onto languages is at least as difficult, if not more so, than characterising national traditions. Languages are malleable: they are simply mediums of communication, and they can be made to say any number of things. Undoubtedly, English-speaking Britons and Americans played a disproportionate role in making the world as we know it. But can their contributions be adequately summed up as "contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive", McCrum's mantra? And can their language really bear the full weight of such an identity?

As modern English loses its shape and intellectual coherence over the course of Globish, one suspects not. This leaves the otherwise sound premise of the book - that English will remain the pre-eminent global language despite the decline of Britain and America - looking quite unremarkable. As a language, English's current ubiquity does not reflect some intrinsic, linguistic magical superpower. Rather, its standing in the world is largely incidental, due in no small part to fortuitous timing (Anglophone pre-eminence during the telecommunications revolution) and, indeed, the deep history McCrum sketches. English, as a language, could no more be the instrumental cause for modern globalisation than ponderous German nouns could have plotted the invasion of Poland.

There may very well be some merit to McCrum's portrayal of English as the language of global aspiration, but even this is easily overstated. India, whose call centres, techno parks, and booming, middle classes McCrum trumpets noisily, is supposedly a bastion of Globish, a dynamic, networked 21st-century English. McCrum marvels at how Indian English and certain Indian languages have thoroughly penetrated each other at a colloquial level, even though this sort of mixing is de rigueur in a country where the largest indigenous language (Hindi/Urdu) evolved as an amalgam in the multilingual army camps of the Mughal empire. He also overlooks the glaring fact that the rise of India's "globalised middle class" has seen the explosion of "vernacular" media across the country (and the precipitous decline in quality of the English media). The circulation of Dainik Jagran, one of many Hindi-language papers, dwarfs the combined circulation of India's major English-language publications.

Other developments suggest that the arena of globalisation is not and will not be the exclusive preserve of Globish. Long ruled by the constraints of its Roman alphabet and its "internationalised domain names", the internet will soon be increasingly hospitable to other scripts, with the imminent launch of Chinese, Arabic, Russian and other URLs. This fundamentally "globish" innovation - inclusive, populist, etc - may result in a fragmented internet, the creation of different spheres of engagement with, and access to, information.

One of the many downfalls of McCrum's Globish and other sweeping paeans to globalisation is its failure to pay this due deference to the complexity of the process they describe; as much as the modern swirl of capital, people, technology and information "flattens", it also raises barriers and accentuates differences. McCrum dwells repeatedly on French resistance to Anglo-Saxon culture, to "Coca-colonisation," as if this was the most telling example of the conflicts produced by globalisation. However anxiously defended, French culture and language are quite safe, hardly at risk from the ravages of "the world's English". Those languages under real threat - like Bantik in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi - will be extinguished not by the advance of English, but that of national languages (in this case, Bahasa Indonesia) that have been strengthened by the internet and the movement of labour to commercial centres. The technologies and patterns of globalisation can conspire to produce a more national - not global - world.

Language remains a wonderful prism through which to understand both historical change over time and the modern world. From Nerriere's Globish to flavoured dialects like Singlish in Singapore to the crisp received pronunciation of aristocratic Indians, multiple registers of English brush shoulders. Each reflects different, often contradictory experiences of globalisation. There is greater truth in their divergence than in their false unity. For if we build the tower of Globish up to the heavens, it is doomed, like Babel, to tumble into incoherence.

Kanishk Tharoor is a regular contributor to The Review and an associate editor at openDemocracy