About The Joy of English
David Crystal

Part One

A lot of people have shelves crammed with books. Not many can claim to have written a bookshelf worth of books. David Crystal, however, can't even calculate how many books he's had a hand in. A search for books attributed to him on Amazon offers no fewer than 340 results.

By Crystal's own admission, linguists are celebrated like the David Beckhams of the world, but he is well known for being one of the foremost authorities on the English language. Few have written more books on the subject – if at all.

This extensive interview was done at his home in Holyhead, on the north-eastern tip of Wales, in March 2008.

Chance beginnings

My mother’s side of the family were originally Irish, who came over in the late 19th century, post-potato-famine time, and came eventually into Holyhead, as a lot of Irish did, and the family stayed here all during the early part of the 20th century. I was born in 1941. My mother was living here. Holyhead had the Dutch navy at that time [during the war], only three ships, nevertheless it was a target, so it was bombed a lttle bit. As a result, mothers were told “go and have your baby somewhere else”, as it were, “get out of town”. My father was in Northern Ireland, at one of the barracks there near Belfast, and so I was born in Lisburn, near Belfast, and then came straight back here. So I wasn’t born here, but I was brought up here for the first ten years [1951]. Then, due to domestic circumstances, my mother moved to Liverpool and so I went there as well. I had my secondary schooling in – pre-Beatles – Liverpool. I had all my secondary schooling there until 1959 and then went down to London to university, and various other places.

Did you speak two languages in the home?

I learnt Welsh as a second language here in Holyhead, but not because of the home. My mother was monolingual. Some of the cousins spoke Welsh. Uncle Joe spoke Welsh and he taught me some, as it were, domestic Welsh sporadically. And Welsh was all around. It’s quite strong here, 50% Welsh speaking in this part of Wales, so you hear it in the streets and everywhere, so you picked up a fair bit. Then in school of course it started to come in a bit more systematically. So about the time I was seven or eight I was very familiar with Welsh. And if it had carried on I would have become extremely fluent in Welsh, but no, we left at age 10 and went to Liverpool. And when you get to Liverpool, if you don’t speak like them – [in a Liverpudlian accent]: “if you don’t speak like us, or we’ll biff ya” – so you lose your Welsh accent very very quickly [laughs] in those circumstances. So as it happened I never learnt the Welsh of teenagers, and things like that, so I’ve ended up sort of semi-lingual in Welsh. I don’t have a confident command of the whole language. I’ve got a very good reading ability in Welsh but only speak it conversationally. I wouldn't give a lecture in it, or give an interview. I will speak in the streets, but don't round the house. English is the lingua franca [in Holyhead] and everybody, because it’s a big tourist area, uses English all the time. The staff at the [Arts] Centre, all the staff speak Welsh, and when people come there, the conversation might be immediately in Welsh depending upon your background. So we have to anticipate that when we’re appointing staff at the Centre. We really try for bilingual people all the time.

Is that what got you interested in languages?

Originally? The interest in language comes as the result of an accumulation of events, but certainly, a curiosity about language is inevitable, it seems to me, if you’re brought up in a bilingual background. You have the same experience [talking to me]. I remember my mother told me that it was as early as when I was about three that I was curious about the differences between English and Welsh, because I could understand the one but couldn’t understand the other. I didn’t know why and I thought that this was very strange, evidently.

That was the earliest linguistic experience – curiosity about the bilingual situation – and then it’s simply the accretion of other languages. At age six I started serving Mass at the local Catholic church and learnt Latin, therefore; or learnt to reproduce it, without understanding it. That was another puzzle: “What’s this language all about?” And then at secondary school, linguistically I learnt Latin properly, and Greek and French. This in 1952 to 1959.

Was it a private school?

No, it was a Grammar school, as it would have been in those days.

I always get confused about the differences [I’m Australian]. A grammar school is a...?

At that time – there were private schools, like Eton and so on – the state schools were of two types. There were Grammar schools and Secondary Modern schools. The difference was that to get into a Grammar school you had to pass an examination and therefore it was a two-tier system, which ultimately people in this country felt was unpalatable and it was replaced by the Comprehensive system in the late-1950s and early 1960s. In my time I could have gone to either; but my mother wanted the best and so I did the examination. I passed it and got into this Grammar school, which was run by the Christian Brothers – tough they were, but very good educators, and I learnt several languages. And eventually I went to university.

I knew I wanted to study English by the end of that period, 1958–59, but not particularly English language. English literature, actually, was my interest. I wanted to be a literary person. I wanted to be a novelist, all that sort of thing. I’d already had a couple of short stories published and things like that so I was going to be a creative-literature man. But I also wanted to do language, so I chose a course, and thankfully got into it, which had a balance between language and literature – at University College, London. It was one of those degree courses where half the papers were language and half the papers literature. You don’t get that so often.

In the first year there I was taught Anglo-Saxon (Old English), Old Norse (Old Icelandic), you know, the whole range of Germanic languages. There were courses in comparative philology and I just revelled in that. Then in the second year I realised that the literature was all fine, but this was the area I wanted to develop in, and went on from there really. But ironically, things have come full circle now because these days I spend half my time on literature [laughs], rather than language. That's the way it goes. I started out in Shakespeare and ended up in Shakespeare, and in between a bit of linguistics.

And after university?

Well, I did well at the Uni, so I was taken on by Randolph Quirk on his Survey of English usage, which was just starting at that time, as a research assistant. I spent one year there.

Were there many assistants?

There were three or four of us, including a Swede, Jan Svartvik. He was my first encounter with Swedish. He first taught me how to say “Hej” properly – and started a love affair with Sweden, actually – we’ve [with his partner Hilary] been to Sweden many times. Jan is at Lund, we’ve been there a couple of times. We’ve been to all sorts of places in Sweden. I’ve been to Umea. Not many Swedes have been up there, let me tell you!

Anyway, he was an assistant there. There were three of four of us, and then I got my first job in linguistics as an assistant lecturer – actually at Bangor, down the road [from Holyhead] – in 1963 for a couple of years. Then, I joined a group that was starting up the new department of linguistics at Reading, which was the first department to really teach linguistics as an undergraduate level. It was a big, big development, starting the department there. I stayed there 20 years, and I would have stayed there forever, I suspect, if Mrs Thatcher hadn’t come along. The government policy of the early 1980s was to slim down the universities, so everybody got letters in 1981 saying, ‘much as we love you, do leave’. And that happened two or three years in a row. A lot of people did leave. I didn’t, I wanted to stay. But by 1984, the administrative burden that had come from that policy was so crippling. As you can see, I’m a writer, I’m a lecturer, I’m a broadcaster, I like doing that sort of thing. I am NOT a university-admin type of person. Some people are. I'm not. So in the end I just quit. I couldn’t stand it any any more, so I left to become a freelance linguist, effectively. We had to decide to live somewhere so we came back up here to live and we’ve here ever since.

At that point, I intended to be a linguist and write books on language. That was what I wanted to do. And that’s what I’ve done. But, the editorial side of things suddenly came out of the blue. So it split me down the middle. In 1986, my first year as a freelance it scared me. Suddenly I wasn’t on a salary or anything. I didn’t get a package from the university, I just left. And so Hilary and I were wondering, “Will we survive”, you know. I’d never met a freelance linguist before and I wondered: what does one do? But, things started coming in, consultantcies and all that. And one day, we got a call from Jeremy Mynott of Cambridge University Press (CUP), saying that they were interested in developing a new general encyclopedia -- a one-volume, “look-it-up” sort of encyclopedia, well that thing [pointing to the book on the shelf to his left] – and was I interested in editing it?

Had you had experience prior to that?

Well, that was the very first question. I said to him, “I don’t know how to edit an encyclopedia”, and he said to me, “well, you have written one”. Which I had done - the first edition of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language - but I had in the early 1980s been unable – for the reasons I explained – to finish it. As soon as I’d left the university I was able to polish that off in no time. So that by 1986 - it came out in 1987 - that had already been done. And so, obviously, the CUP guys – looking round for an editor, now knowing what an encyclopedia editor was like – thought, well, if a guy can write an encyclopedia he can presumably edit one. That was the logic. And I thought: well, this is a nice idea. Someone is going to pay me to study everything. That’s rather cool, ah, and it was. It was a salary basically, and it kept us going. But I’d never realised that it was going to take over my life as much as it did. Because it did!

The first volume of The Cambridge Encyclopedia was completed in three years or so. It took up more than half my time – and Hilary’s – with a research assistant and 350 specialists all over the world writing the entries for me. So that took a lot of time over 1986 to 1990, and then it was so successful that book that it spawned a whole family of encyclopedia. There was the Concise version – well you can see them there, down the bottom [pointing to the bookshelves], some of them – and the Cambridge Factfinder, and the Biographical Encyclopedia, and so on. So in the early 1990s it took over three quarters or more of my life and I became an encyclopedist in that sense.

More or less by chance!

Absolutely by chance, and absolutely fascinating it was, too. It did mean that my language writing suffered a bit. I wasn’t able to do as much language writing as I had expected to do, but still, it was really fascinating work. And since then, that’s how it’s been.

If you’re talking about me, there are two sides to me: there’s the language/author side; then there’s the encyclopedia-editor side, which in due course took on a life of it’s own. It became a huge operation with 12 staff, all of whom were working in here [his office and library], which is why we had to build on the extension [to the house]. It got so big eventually that we had to get an office in town, which is where I still do some part-time work. The encyclopedia work, in time, became IT-orientated and ended up in the Internet world. So, that’s the switch, and keeping the two in perspective is still quite tricky [laughs], I have to say.

So, leaving the academic world, you said that it freed up your time to work on what you wanted.

Absolutely. The day that I decided to leave the university world was the day I had spent all day deciding whether to send my speech-therapy students by bus or by train to their clinics. And at the end of the day I had saved the university about 30 quid, but nobody had put my salary into the equation. I came home and moaned to Hilary about it and thought about what we should do. Coincidentally, we were coming up to Holyhead for a weekend break over Easter, and Uncle John, who lives down the bottom of the road, after we were moaning to him, simply said:

“Well, why don’t you leave?”
And I said: “We can’t leave.”
“Yes, you can,” he said.
“But what would I do?” I said.
“You could become a consultant like I am.”
“Well, there’s never been a consultant in linguistics before. I mean, who would I consult?”
And he said: “You’d be surprised.”

Anyway, so I said that there’s nowhere to live in Holyhead, there’s no house big enough for a kind of university office. It’s not that kind of place. Anyway, out we go [Hilary] and we drive up to the top of the avenue to do a three-point turn, and this house is for sale. And we look at it, and we look at each other, and we look at it, and say to each other: “Shall we just go and look at it?” So we come in, look round, fall in love with it and make an offer for it. We made the decsion there and then, really. We end up back down south, sell our house and suddenly remember that I must tell the vice-chancellor that I’m leaving [laughs]. So we do, and then we came back up here. So it was a very unexpected kind of independence. It was one of those “Let’s do it” moments and we did it, without really thinking of the consequences.

Continue reading Part Two of the David Crystal interview.