This article appeared in The Herald
George Bernard Shaw was an early advocate of simplifying English spelling. It wasn’t one of his better ideas, but if the entries on, oh, online football message forums, say, are anything to go by, it is one that has been belatedly taken up. English, meanwhile, continues to be mangled in other ways: only this week I saw water coolers bearing the legend “water with integrity”; when using ScotRail’s services, one frequently hears the word “detrain” put over the Tannoy; and the Americans are never done bastardising things.
It is doubtless a comfort to many native English speakers that there is no real call for them to learn other languages. The Labour MP Chris Bryant was wrong to say that French is a “useless” language – certainly, schoolboys can use it to try and chat up nice-looking French girls when they are in France – but it is true that English, or at least a form of it, is the nearest thing we have to a modern universal lingua franca.
The journalist Robert McCrum has just written a book, Globish, about how English, shorn of its complexity, idioms, cultural baggage and about 648,500 words (the OED contains 650,000) has given non-native speakers a common currency in the context of international business, politics and so on.
In a whiggish sort of way, he seems to be rather taken by this, the simplification of English on the net and in the boardrooms of the world being tantamount to hobbling “elites” – in this instance those of us lucky enough to know more than 1,500 words.
The term Globish was, in fact, dreamed up two decades ago by a Frenchman, Jean-Paul Nerrier. Having noticed that non-native English speakers found it easier to do business with one another than with native speakers, he saw there was money to be made from knocking up a list of words and phrases that would serve their needs while simultaneously striking a blow against Anglophone hegemony: if people learned Globish, he reasoned, they wouldn’t need to bother learning English.
I don’t know whether “detrain” would be considered Globish, but look online (80% of websites are said to be in “some kind of English”) or lift the phone to Mastercard and you may well encounter it.
Meanwhile, the French expunge their own language of words such as “weekend” and “toaster”, and the advances of Anglophone suitors continue to be met with shrugs.