About The Joy of English

David Crystal

So, enter the other side of you...

Well, that [picking up a copy of the Encyclopedia of the English Language off the shelf] is the other side of me. When you look at a thing like that, the one thing that will strike anybody is it’s diversity of subject matter. That sort of language gets everywhere, into every corner of existence and so, any particular area of knowledge or behaviour can generate a book on language. Whatever it might be, I mean history, geography, science, religion, art, you name it – let alone the regional side of things – British English, American English, Australian English and for ALL languages. I very early on realised that I’m the sort of guy who is very eclectic and I’m interested in everything. There comes a point when if I go into detail too much, it begins to bore me a little. Something will interest me and start calling me over the shoulder, and I’ll leave one topic and go on to something else. Although I have done traditional research and gone into HUGE detail on one or two topics in linguistics, I am not a linguistic theoretician in that sense.

I know colleagues of mine in linguistics who spend their whole life just working on one subject. Doctors do that in medicine, their entire career is spent on working on diabetes or whatever it might be. Thank God that there are such people around, but I’m not that sort of person. My aim was always to popularise the subject of linguistics and to apply it to as many different problem situations as I could find. And there’s no shortage of roles. People are always saying, we have a problem here and it’s to do with language. Do you think you can help?

Did you develop that sort of thinking from the outset of your freelance time or...?

Oh much earlier. Right from the very beginning when I first started to go into academic life, in my first year as a research assistant. The ‘Survey of English Usage’ was a survey attempting to describe for the first time exactly how people did speak and write. Writing, people had always studied, but not speaking. So we were collecting stuff all the time, and we kept getting phone calls. People would call in all the time saying ‘it’s interesting work you are doing - and we’ve got a problem’. And the problem might be perhaps a problem of style. It might be a journalist, or an organisation, anything. I very quickly realised that people out there were actually extremely interested in language and had all sorts of questions about it. They didn’t know very much about it and they wanted to find out the facts. So, even though I was new to the business in that first year, I found myself out and about giving basic lectures and writing simple articles on language for people who wanted to know about the subject.

From then, in 1962, I started thinking that because there was this huge interest out there, there was a demand that needed to be met, and then things happened. So, for my very first book [pointing to the shelf again] up there at the top, I’m at a chaplaincy conference in the Midlands – I was into that sort of thing at the time -- and I’m giving a talk on language, because they’d asked me to, and up comes a publisher afterwards and says: “That’s very interesting, do you think there’s a book here?” And the result is a book called Linguistics, Language and Religion, which I hadn’t expected to write, but at the time (this is 1962), as you can see from the subject matter –the Vatican Council, changing liturgy from Latin into English, religious language etc. - there were all sorts of things going on at the time about language. And the guy said, ‘Can I bring them all together into a single book?” I thought ok, I’d never written a book before, but that’s what came out of it.

And that is a perfect example of my life ever since, because most of the books I’ve written are not my ideas. Somebody comes along and says, “we need a book on this”, or somebody comes up and asks, “Is there a book on this?”

Take Language and the Internet. Why is that written? Because somebody came along in 1999 and asks, "Is there a book on the Internet?" And I thought, no there isn’t. Well, I’d better write one then. That’s how it goes. Almost everything in here starts out in that kind of way - from a discussion with somebody on language who says, in the middle of the conversation, “I’d love to read some more about this”. And you think, why is there nothing written on this? And it’s never stopped. My latest book, the Shakespeare one, same thing. I mean, why hasn’t there been a book on Shakespeare’s language? You’d think it’s the obvious thing, but nobody’s written one. There are books on Shakespeare’s grammar, and vocabulary, but an overview of ALL of Shakespeare’s language: there wasn’t one. It wasn’t even my idea. Cambridge [University Press] rang me up one day and said, "We’ve got this series going and we’d love to have a general book on Shakespeare’s language. Could you do one?" So, because in the last ten years I’d been specialising in Shakespeare’s language, the time seemed right. My next book, coming out in June, Txting, the Gr8 Dbate [now published] is on text messaging. Why? Because there isn’t one. It seems unending, but that’s the sort of linguist I am.

How many books have you written to date?

Aah, that’s a VERY difficult question to answer. In fact I get that question ALL the time. People count up different things, so I did a piece on my blog, in which I tried to explicate it. See, it all depends on editions and things. There’s over a hundred there [pointing to the shelf], but do the edited books count? You spend half your life on it, I think they should. You can spend half your life on the second edition of a book, so is that the same as the first edition? I NEVER know how to answer that question, but when people are introducing me what they usually do is they just count up the titles. You get over a hundred that way. But you see the problem. I never like to answer the question, but if you count everything up there are a hundred or so.

Do you always have the same publisher? Are you contacted to a publisher?

No, never. A book has to suit the publisher and the publisher has to suit the book. Just because I’ve reached being a well known person doesn’t mean to say that a publisher will accept a book proposal. Quite the contrary. Some of the most recent books have been turned down by one publisher. Another one picks it up. There are some book proposals here on the shelves that I still haven’t found a publisher for, because they’re not interested.

Such as?

I’ve got an autobiography half written, which I circulated to three or four publishers a year or so ago and none were interested. Someone is interested now, but they may decide not to be [in fact, this will appear in May 2009, with the title Just a Phrase I'm Going Through]. It’s a curious genre. Although I’m well known in the language world, linguists are not David Beckhams, they’re not celebrated in the same sense, so it’s a difficult book to place. I am going to write it anyway. You also have to remember that it’s not just publication, it’s also the whole business of getting something produced. I still do a lot of creative writing, and in particular when the language death topic came up a few years ago, I approached it creatively as well. Are you aware of the language death issue?

Are you talking about Lynne Truss [Eats, Shoots and Leaves]?

OH NO-OO! [Mock horror] No I am not. I mean the issue of endangered language. This crisis emerged in about 1992. People realised that about half the languages of the world are dying out. So what are we going to do about it? This is a MAJOR ecological crisis, far worse than the crisis affecting plants and animals. Lots of people have been doing lots of things at UN level. So I thought that what I’d do is write a book about it, tell the world, as it were. That book came out, and while it does reach minds, it doesn’t reach hearts. How do you get at the actual feelings to do with this? People have to at least document them before they disappear. People have to want to do this, which means that they have to feel the importance of language loss for themselves.

How do you get to hearts and convey the value of what’s being lost?

Exactly that! And I realised that this can never happen with an intellectual approach, that it can only be done through the arts. So, from the mid-1990s onwards I spent a lot of time lecturing and talking to people about how the arts should be put to work to publicise the concept of an endangered language and what is lost when a language dies. All the arts. I talked to sculptors and painters etc. Now, I cannot sculpt, but I can use language. So I thought that what I would do is write a play; in fact I was commissioned to write a play on it, which I did, in 1998-9. Greg Doran, now at Stratford, having read some articles on mine thought that it was a very good subject and he came over here and I ended up writing it. But just at that critical point he changed jobs, and went to Stratford, and was unable to put it on in his theatre – which he was intending to do. So the play languished. So this is another example of the difficulty of getting something placed.


It’s true. And I’ve tried to get that play produced ever since, and it’s had lots of readings. We had a staged reading in London last year, but it’s not mainstream theatre. Just because I am who I am, it’s another example of what I mean - it doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere. There are a few things like that that I would like to see evolve. But for the most part, of everything I have written, something like 90% has been published. And to go back to your original question, the publisher could be anybody. Penguin will publish certain types of books, OUP will publish certain types of books and so on.

Do you work to a certain schedule?

I will never start a book now without an agreement, which means a deadline, because you only have so much time. So you don’t want to waste it. But, there’s always a book just out. There’s always a book ABOUT to come out, and there’s always the one that’s being written. And then there’s the idea of one for something further ahead. There are two things happening this year [2008]: one is a new edition of the English language encyclopedia, which hasn’t been revised for ten years now, and it’s pre-Internet. So that needs to be revised with a big chunk of Internet stuff in there – I’m doing that this year. And then the other thing that I’m doing is another curious editorial sort of job, on the language side: Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford want to reprint it as a classic next year, and they want a new introduction for it. So I have read the WHOLE book from beginning to end, which was a labour of – I don’t know what the word is, ‘love’ is the wrong word – ‘duty’ I think. Very few people have ever read it from beginning to end, and it turns out that Fowler is, actually, downright more sensible than people think. And, as I say, the autobiography may come to the boil this year, finally, after all its rejections.

What is a typical working week for you?

All day is writing. A day without writing is a day wasted, for me. Even if the writing is simply an article or a letter to the Times. If you weren’t here today, I would be writing something. Otherwise I’ll just sit here and write and write and write. That’s what I like doing best, but the other thing that interferes with that is the travel.

When you write books, people invite you places. We get invitations coming in from all over the world, EVERY DAY. Two came in yesterday, and you just can’t do them all. Hilary and I are business partners, as well as husband and wife. She looks after all the liaison for all the events and we do as much as we can, but for every one invitation we accept we turn down ten. You just can’t accept them all. People invite you because you’ve written books; but if you’re travelling all the time you haven’t got time to write books - so you have to balance it all. Last year we were away from home half the year, 250 days or so. We’ll go to a place for a week or a few days or so. If it’s really far away, we might go for two or three weeks - like New Zealand, a couple of years back, when we went for two and a half weeks. You can’t go all that way and not stay. This year for instance [March 2008], in January we were in Colombia for ten days, and then we were in Italy for ten days in February and I just came back from Madrid a couple of days ago. Then it settles down until the Lit Festival season starts to build up. We’re always away somewhere. A lot of it is pedagogical. I do a lot of work with schools - sixth-form days at a school, or a group of schools, or with teachers etc. When you add it all up it means that we’re away at least 100 days a year. It’s a problem, and we have to decide how to manage all this. I’m not complaining about the visits, but we do complain about the travel to get there!

Can you write when you travel?

Oh yeah. I can write in the car when Hilary’s driving. I can bring the laptop and work very well. But when I'm abroad it’s not so easy simply because it’s tiring. You’re on every day, especially if you’re on a tour, it’s a new audience, new people to persuade. Nonstop socialising is tough, there are always parties, drinks etc going on – on top of the travelling. I mean, it’s fantastic, it’s great. You meet wonderful people. It is a great privilege to be invited in this way, but it’s tough. We’re trying to cut back - but we said that last year!

You have one book you’ve written together.

Yeah, that’s Words on Words, a book of language quotations. Hilary is a speech therapist by training, so we have a shared language background, and we wrote that one together.

And the other thing that’s happened in the last ten or 15 years or so, is that the theatre world has sucked us in. Not just because of the playwriting business I mentioned earlier on, but when I got back into Shakespeare studies in the mid-1990s it was in association with Shakespeare’s Globe, had just opened up. It’s an amazing experience, that South Bank development, and we started going to the Globe just to see how these plays were performed in original circumstances. I developed my links with the Globe so much that I started giving lectures and things like this, and eventually became more formally associated with them. Then in 2004 I collaborated with them in producing two plays in original Shakespearean pronunciation, which led to this book [Pronouncing Shakespeare], which is the story of the Romeo and Juliet production of that year [2005] in Shakespearean speech. That was EXTREMELY time consuming, as you can imagine, working with a production, training the actors how to pronounce the speech in the way that one thought it was.

And that sort of academic activity had a parallel with something else that was happening in our lives; namely our son Ben, who is now 30, but who ten years ago was just deciding what to do with his life. He decided that he wanted to be an actor, so we say to him: “Now, you don’t want to be an actor because actors never work.” That’s what all parents say. So we suggest that he should do a degree first, because at least then he’ll have something to fall back on. He decides, yes, he’ll do a degree and goes up to Lancaster and does a degree in linguistics and English language. Why, I don’t know - no pressure from me! It might have been law, but in the end he chooses to do this. So he does his degree, still wants to be an actor, then trains immediately afterwards and now is a professional actor. But, when he’s not working, because we’re now in the same business, we are able to collaborate on things. The first big project we worked on together was this huge glossary and language companion, which took us three years or more - a compilation of the difficult words in Shakespeare. A sort of dictionary really, but with encyclopedic bits and pieces throughout in various panels. Me: writing it from a linguistic point of view. Him: from an acting point of view. And that was the first collaboration we had. A few years later we did this one [The Shakespeare Miscellany] for Penguin. So suddenly I find myself again in the acting world, but in a different way via Ben. And of course, whenever Ben IS in something - he hasn’t done too badly - we go and see it. So Hilary and I find ourselves travelling around the country going to theatres all over the place because he happens to be in a play there. So the theatre side of our lives has suddenly blossomed, and we find ourselves going to the theatre once every couple of weeks somewhere or rather. That’s a real delight. Working with your kid is great, fantastic. I really enjoyed that.

These are all of your books [on the shelf]?

That’s a complete set. It doesn’t include the series I edit, or have edited. I am the editor of the Blackwell’s language library, for example - have been for the last 25 years or so. That’s an interesting world, academic editing, because if someone sends in a proposal for a book, you have to judge in collaboration with the publisher whether it’s a good idea. Is it sellable or not? And then you are in contact with the author, helping him to form it. Eventually it comes in, you read it, you go through it with a toothcomb. You point out weaknesses, strengths. The guy rewrites and then it comes out. You spend a lot of time on someone else’s book. I’ve done a lot of that.

Continues in Part Four of the David Crystal Interview.