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Issue 137 March 2011 RSS

Speak Easy

Pretty, Pretty Good

The ramifications of ‘Globish’ – global English

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Nicoline van Harskamp The New Latin (2010)

Three artists – one Swedish, one American and one German – are talking together at an opening. The Swede says: ‘We know we don’t speak English so good.’ The American disagrees while unconsciously adding a correction: ‘I think you both speak English well!’ And the German says: ‘Not really, but we don’t care because we have an understandment.’

That’s no joke – nor is it a jab at these nationalities and their ability to master foreign languages. It’s yet another conversation I’ve overheard where a native English speaker was outnumbered by non-native English speakers. And the non-natives are no longer embarrassed about making mistakes, precisely because they are speaking English primarily with other non-natives. What’s important in these conversations is being understood, not being correct.

But what language are they speaking, if not bad English? Jean-Paul Nerrière might say ‘Globish’ (short for ‘Global English’). In 2004 the French businessman wrote Don’t Speak English… Parlez Globish!, a guide to learning, not the Queen’s English or American English, but a simplified English with only 1,500 words to talk with people around the world, whatever their mother tongues. For Nerrière – and followers such as Robert McCrum, author of Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language (2010) – non-native English speakers have developed their own English, which native speakers cannot always understand. With Globish, natives no longer have the last word.

While Nerrière focused on business, art has played a role in spreading both English and Globish, although few people make a distinction between the two. Many artists critically addressed English’s role as an imperialistic lingua franca – with reason – yet they were also speaking a new tongue. Consider Jakup Ferri’s confessional video An Artist Who Cannot Speak English is No Artist(2003). Or Bojan Sarcevic’s book Zurvival guid (2002), a survival guide spelt in improvized phonetic English. Recently, Katarina Zdjelar’s video installation Shoum (2009) featured two Serbs deciphering lyrics in the Tears for Fears song ‘Shout’ (1985), which they hear as ‘shoum’. English may dominate, but its messages don’t always come across.

In her video The New Latin (2010) Dutch artist Nicoline van Harskamp takes a bigger step towards affirming the legitimacy of Globish and the rights of globophones to develop their language without the help of native English speakers. The video – based on a performance staged in Romanian at the 4th Bucharest Biennial last year – looks like a filmed artist talk, complete with an attentive audience. In fact, the piece was a carefully scripted exchange between the fictional Romanian curator and linguist Alexandru Dima (played by Daniel Popa) and Van Harskamp, who learnt her Romanian lines phonetically for the performance (and added English subtitles to the video later).

Van Harskamp doesn’t use Nerrière’s term Globish but rather ‘Lingua Franca English’: English with no state, territory, army, flora, fauna, cooking, swearing or literature, and no rule of native speakers. ‘English belongs to me as much as it belongs to an American’, says the artist in Dutch-accented Romanian. ‘Why not reclaim and co-opt the language that was imposed on us? And then celebrate it?’ If English is the new Latin, it can create new languages, just as the vulgar versions of Latin led to the Romance languages. Her video brings to mind Dante’s essay ‘De vulgari eloquentia’ (Concerning Vernacular Eloquence, c.1305): not a tract about swearing but a defence of Italian. Of course, Dante went on to use this ‘vulgar’ tongue to write the Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy, 1308–21).

Does Globish have an impact on art works or just on the way we talk about them? For Van Harskamp there’s the primary language of an artist’s work and the secondary language of English ‘art jargon’: wall texts, press releases, reviews. She criticizes the way the terms of jargon – she cites ‘transgression’, ‘dystopia’ and ‘disobedience’ – have slowly spread into the titles of artists’ works while losing meaning. That loss of meaning seems inevitable; words become lighter through travel. But instead of using English art jargon, artists can create new Globish hybrids, from ‘understandment’ to ‘shoum’.

Although a native English speaker, I learnt about Globish in the late 1990s, after translators emailed me endless questions because my insider jokes and obscure metaphors could not be translated. To avoid complications, I tried to simplify my writing. But my attempts to shift from English to Globish were not always appreciated by my fellow anglophones. One Canadian editor told me that my reviews sounded like traffic signs: No Parking Any Time.

To my ears that’s a great sentence. I wish more anglophones would simplify for globophones. I’ve been at too many conferences where an anglophone reads a paper that no one in the audience can understand. If someone speaks English well – or ‘so good’ – that doesn’t mean she can listen attentively to a densely written text. Anglophones may not be ready to give up the imperialist privileges of knowing more than non-native speakers. Instead of being intimidated, non-natives should tell the natives to speak Globish too.

Jennifer Allen


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First published in
Issue 137, March 2011

by Jennifer Allen

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