A leading thinker recommends five books about their field of interest. This month, the topic is the English language, chosen by the journalist and novelist Robert McCrumby Prospect / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1755)
What I want to do in my choice of books is to describe the three stages of the evolution of the English language. The first is a British stage, the second is American and the third is a global one, in which English is being used internationally as a default language.
Samuel Johnson wrote one of the most influential dictionaries in the English language. And, amazingly, he did it all by himself apart from the assistance of a few hired hands.
He wrote some witty entries, defining “lexicographer” as “a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.” For “oats” he put “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”
This dictionary marked the first time that a language has been defined, not in academic terms or university terms, but by one individual using language in a very practical way. It’s a touchstone of the English language.
The American Language (1921)
By HL Mencken
HL Mencken was a terrific journalist during the first half of the 20th century. He wrote for the Baltimore Morning Herald and deemed it his job as columnist to make trouble. But in his spare time he was a passionate advocate of what he called the American language. He wrote the book to clarify the discrepancies between British and American English and to define the characteristics of American English.
He was as much a nationalist about his language as Johnson was. Mencken’s book describes how American English evolved after the revolution into the way it was in 1920. He saw it as an international force. Although one of his friends was the English broadcaster Alistair Cooke, he was fairly anti-British and saw the American language as a way of defining the nation’s identity. He was very pro what at the time was seen as slang; he thought it was a cause for celebration.
The World is Flat (2005)
By Thomas Friedman
The World is Flat inspired some of the ideas in my own book, Globish. Friedman describes how the global market really took off in the 1990s and 2000s, and a globalised version of the English language (which I call globish) became the means of international communication.
For example, if a Chinese, a Korean, a Brazilian and a Nigerian meet in a trade fair, they will talk in globish. This is a new phenomenon: 20 years ago there would have been an attempt to use French or Spanish. For native English speakers, globish is not necessarily something you would recognise—but, though it is rough and ready, it does work.
This book isn’t that well written but it is fizzing with good ideas. “The world is flat” refers to a level playing field. If you are in India or China you have as many chances as you do in Manchester or Detroit, since we are all connected by the internet.
Dreams from My Father (1995)
By Barack Obama
Obama is really a globish president and a brilliant writer. His mother’s family were from Kansas and he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. He hardly knew his Kenyan father, who died when Obama was a teenager. In this memoir he goes to Kenya to track down his father’s family and to find out what the man who his white mother talked about so much was actually like.
I think Obama is a global citizen. He says that he has a special relationship with the English—but he can say the same thing to India and the Chinese and it will sound authentic in a way it never would if David Cameron said it. I was writing Globish during his presidential campaign and he is a case in point of what I am talking about.
Now the power is east to west; in the old days it was north to south. Obama is fine with that—he is able to operate in any situation because of his roots, which he so vividly writes about in this book.
The White Tiger (2008)
By Aravind Adiga
This novel won the Man Booker prize. It’s a wonderful, high-octane book written in gripping Indian English. Aravind Adiga has taken this phenomenon of the liberation of English into the global arena and turned it into literature.
Balram Halwai is born into a poor family. A village landlord takes him on as a chauffeur and Balram discovers New Delhi, and a vision of the city changes his life. He comes to believe that the way to the top is by the most expedient means. And if that involves committing the odd crime of violence, he persuades himself that this is what successful people must do.
The White Tiger is fresh, vigorous, doesn’t take itself too seriously and completely characterises what I think are the very qualities of the English language.
Interview by Daisy Banks for the website FiveBooks