Pure joy in putting pen to paper

March 1, 2002

Language scholar David Crystal takes delight in watching words evolve.

David Crystal is an independent scholar who edits reference books and writes about his passion, language, from a big old house in remote Holyhead. Colleagues respect his work as a populariser and envy his prolific output and presumed wealth.

Last year he and a colleague bought the Cambridge Encyclopedia database at a knock-down £40,000, and signed with Penguin Books. When it appears later this year, The Penguin Encyclopedia should slip comfortably into Cambridge's vacant niche in the one-volume encyclopedia market.

Also coming this year is a Shakespeare glossary, Shakespeare's Words , written with his actor son, Ben, and pitched as an intelligent analysis of the Bard's language rather than a mere phrasebook. "Bootless" and "incarnadine" may not be everyday words in 2002 but Crystal fumes at the suggestion that Shakespeare needs to be translated for modern youth. "There are not that many difficult words in Shakespeare. We know. We've been there. We've counted them all."

David and his wife, Hilary, work in a no-frills office built on the back of the house, lined with books and ferociously heated against the chill wind off the Irish Sea. It leads to a second office where four people tend the database. Life, the universe and everything are organised into a vast subject tree where every fact finds its place. New knowledge is added every day. From time to time, the liquid information is tapped from the computer and poured into the moulds of a new reference book.

After a North Wales childhood, Crystal had his secondary education in Liverpool and spent most of his academic life in Reading. He speaks standard English with a hard-to-place accent. "I am an amalgam, what we linguists technically call a mess," he explains. In the pub, you might hear him slip into Welsh English, but probably not the Welsh language.

He defends his right to speak Welsh badly, and to be regarded as Welsh nonetheless. "Purists are the worst enemy of the language," he says. "If the current generation of kids does not stay with the Welsh language, the whole Welsh language will go down the tubes within ten years." He has irritated the purists by proposing that Welsh should be simplified. There is a phenomenon called mutation, where the ending of one word modifies the beginning of the next. The rules are complex. Even experts get it wrong. So abolish it, he says.

Like most academic linguists, he says his approach is descriptive, not prescriptive. Language is a living thing, and the fun is to watch it evolve. In a recent book, The Language of the Internet , he examined the way people use language online, a development other linguists seem to have ignored.

Another recent book, English as a Global Language , asks how English emerged as the leading world language in the last quarter of the 20th century. The short answer is: the United States. But the full story is complex.

Crystal was accused of everything from complacency to triumphalism over this one. But anyone who has read his Language Death will know that he is a passionate defender of language diversity. One difference between the two books is that while he has plenty of ideas for saving endangered languages, he can think of no possible action that would halt the ascendancy of English. His position may be politically uncomfortable, but it is logically consistent.

No other writer has found so many ways of turning the dry subject of language into entertaining reading. Language Play deals with puns, anagrams, limericks and other word games. He himself prefers the non-verbal relaxations of film and music. But there is one game Crystal plays with his readers. In each of his books he tries to incorporate a line from Carol Reed's 1949 film, The Third Man .

Words on Words was written by David and Hilary, together, after their son Ben had trouble tracing the quotation (from Max Weinreich): "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy". A "wonderful year" of research ensued, trawling English literature for quotations about language and languages. Like so many Crystal books, the need for it is obvious once you see it. Jean Aitchison, Rupert Murdoch professor of language and communication at Oxford, says she finds Words on Words "extremely useful both for lecturing and for setting exam questions".

The general encyclopedias that Crystal edits are a secondary enterprise to the books on language that he is writing all the time. "I am primarily a writer," he says. "The only thing that makes me happy in any given day is to write something. I don't care what it is, I have to write something."

The books - their titles alone now fill half a column in Who's Who - began to come thick and fast in 1984. "Before that, I was a normal, full-time, perfectly standard, unhappy university lecturer." Unhappy perhaps, but not unproductive. After two years at Bangor, in 1965 he went to Reading to set up a linguistics department and launch a pioneering undergraduate programme in the subject. Courses and research projects proliferated. In 1972, Randolph Quirk published an influential report that proposed that linguistics should be a core discipline for speech therapists. Reading became the first university to offer a clinical linguistics course, and its linguistics department did clinical research with the Royal Berkshire Hospital.

This was a time of personal tragedies: the death of a son, followed by the death of his first wife, Molly, in 1976. One day, Hilary, who is a speech therapist, came to one of David's lectures. Within weeks they were married.

He wrote a first-year undergraduate textbook, Introduction to Language Pathology , which appeared in 1980 and is now in its fourth edition. "I always like to write a book on a subject I am learning about," he says.

Reaching the rank of professor he found his time consumed by administrative work. Margaret Thatcher's cuts were biting. There was an offer of redundancy, but it expired before he made up his mind to leave. He returned to his home town of Holyhead and set up as an independent author. He soon found he was in demand. By the end of the first year, there was a "say no" sign on the phone.

The main job in the first year was to finish the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language , a task he had begun in 1980. One day Jeremy Mynott phoned from Cambridge University Press with a bigger commission, The Cambridge Encyclopedia , which would involve managing 200 contributors. This led to a series of reference books published by Cambridge, and later Penguin. Their accessible language and colour illustrations appealed to readers at all levels. "His colour books are absolutely marvellous," Aitchison says.

Crystal is often on the radio, speaking from his home studio over an ISDN line. He was a consultant on the BBC radio series Routes of English , which explored 1,000 years of spoken English. He has an honorary chair at the University of Wales, Bangor. With Hilary he runs the local arts centre, in a former chapel saved from demolition in 1990. Last year he finished a television series for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Beyond Babel , which was screened on the Discovery Channel and has been sold to other countries. But network TV still regards language as an off-limits subject. "No country anywhere in the world has done a blockbuster series on language," Crystal says.

With no TV blockbuster in sight, there are plenty of other projects. An internet search engine driven by the encyclopedia database. And more books. "There are," Crystal sighs, "so many wonderful topics out there."

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