Sunday, January 25, 2009

Parlez le Speech, I Pray Vous...

I read today an article on the BBC about a pidgin that may be poised to take over worldwide business communication: Globish. It appears to be an abbreviated vocabulary of English words which can be mixed in with a non-English speaker's native tongue (for the articles and proper nouns, most likely, although the article doesn't say this) to facilitate business transactions in any country around the globe. It is being touted by a Frenchman, Jean-Paul Nerriere, in a new book, Don't Speak English, Parlez Globish. There are two particular quotes from the article I'd like to share with you:
"Globish has only 1,500 words and users must avoid humour, metaphor, abbreviation and anything else that can cause cross-cultural confusion."

"We're just urinating on the ashes of the fire," he says. We should look on Globish not as a triumphant cultural vehicle for les Anglo-Saxons, but as a tool, he says: essential but purely utilitarian.
For starters, I can't even clear my throat with only 1,500 words, to paraphrase the old saying. And I have no interest in a language that requires me to eliminate irony or sarcasm from the spoken or the written word, so the first statement is not making me a convert to Globish. Finally, in the second quote, "urinating on the ashes of the fire" is a metaphor, if I'm not mistaken: you should practice what you preach, M. Nerriere, n'est-ce pas? .

I understand the practical need for quick, easy and clear communication, especially in business, but I can't help but bemoan the fact we native English speakers are astoundingly and stupefyingly lazy compared to the rest of the world (and I include myself in this condemnation). All of my friends from Europe and Asia know at least one other language in addition to their mother tongue (obviously, that would be English or else I couldn't communicate with them); many of them can at least hold their own in two or three other languages, as well.* I understand that in a global economy, it's probably inevitable that one language would dominate the others: the dominance of Anglo culture over the last 150 or more years (if one includes the British Empire, which I think one should) has made English that language. What concerns me is that it feels as though it's because we're the lowest common denominator: we can't speak their language, so they'll have to make do with ours. If this is a given, it's not difficult to envision a meeting taking place in Hong Kong—even one in which most of the participants are Chinese—taking place in Globish in deference to one Anglo in the room.**

For those of you who are interested, here's Marc Antony's famous speech from Julius Caesar, translated into Globish. My first thought upon reading it was that it appears to use a vocabulary larger than 1,500 words; my second thought was that, contrary to M. Nerriere's statement that Globish is not English, the speech is entirely English; my third thought was that I've had actors paraphrase my dialogue just like this lots of times... and it's pretty irritating, let me tell you.

*To be completely fair, I do have American friends who speak multiple languages. Two good examples are Jeff and Caroline here: he is fluent in Chinese (I'm not sure how many dialects), she in Spanish.

†Or should I say, the lowest common dominators? But that's humor and humor is totally inappropriate for an article on Globish, right?

**Again, in fairness, that single person could also be French, German, Russian or any other non-Chinese speaker.

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