Klingon as a Second Language

By Shea, Ammon | The National Interest, July-August 2010 | Go to article overview

Klingon as a Second Language


Shea, Ammon, The National Interest


Robert McCrum, Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 331 pp., $26.95.

Few subjects engender such passionate argument and virulent quibbling s the English language. Its use and misuse have been the cause of beheadings, burnings at the stake, and innumerable bad report cards and tongue lashings over the past thousand years or so. One imagines that all people must feel strongly about their mother tongue, yet we speakers and writers of this glorious polyglot linguistic mess appear to have exceeded all others in the amount of praise we accord to our particular system of communication, and the abuse we heap upon those who we feel employ it poorly.

There are varying estimates as to how many people in the world speak English (anywhere from 700 million to guesses that there are over 2 billion), and yet unless there is some agreement as to what exactly constitutes knowing a language (which seems unlikely), it will remain impossible to get a sense of how pernicious our language is.

But though the exact numbers may be disputed, what cannot be denied is that the English language, like a metastasizing linguistic tumor, has been remarkably successful in its growth. There have been any number of movements to ban, or at least to limit, its spread. Perhaps the most celebrated example is that of the Academie Francaise, the group in France charged with the unenviable task of keeping the Gallic language pure and free from such deleterious terms as le big mac. One can hardly fault these immortals in their desire to prevent the distortion of their oh-so-venerable language, but their position appears rather risible when they attempt to prevent the use of English words that come originally from French--as was the case when it was recommended that the business term le cashflow be banned (cash likely comes to English from the Middle French casse, meaning "money box").

Now, the Office quebeois de la langue francaise (OQLF), an organization in Quebec that was formed in 1961 with the objective of preserving its titular language, has been somewhat more effective in pursuing its Gallic goals. Indeed, the OQLF has served as a vigilant guardian of French language and culture in northern North America, which usually involves fining shop owners for not posting signs in French, or forcing businesses that sell to Quebecois to maintain an entirely separate French web site.

The English-language-as-infection is an idea held by so many it is hard to know where to stop recounting the tales of its outraged linguistic victims. A recent story in the London Daily Telegraph describes the efforts of Huang Youyi, the Chinese chairman of the International Federation of Translators, to ban the use of English words. Youyi even introduced a proposal at the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference demanding that publications avoid using English names for people, places and companies-bizarre (and unmanageable), to say the least.

Besides our mother tongue, it is unlikely that any language has ever been the subject of so many encomiums, exhortations, broadsides and legislation. No other language has ever had so much ink, if not blood, spilled on its behalf. The Moldovans and the Romanians might debate whether the former is a dialect of the latter, or if they are in fact two distinct languages, but the truth of the matter is that very few people (aside from the Moldovans and Romanians) care much either way. And in any event, neither one of these languages is in great danger of spreading so rapidly as to change the rest of the world's feelings about it. This is not the case with English.

Robert McCrum's Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language is an attempt to explain how the world came to find itself overrun by our nouns, verbs and adjectives. His success in the endeavor is decidedly mixed.

The problems begin with the title. …

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