David Crystal
[ Issue 43 ]

Emily Bronto is definitely one of David Crystal’s many fans

Bikwil salutes David Crystal

David Crystal

At last! After nearly five years we have another essay in Bikwil's Up-front Popularizers series.  This one’s by our resident language obsessionist Harlish Goop. 

His subject is linguist David Crystal.

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"A Word Spoken at the Right Moment
Is like a Golden Apple on a Silver Dish"

[ Up-front Popularizers No. 3 ]
— Harlish Goop


The title of this essay is a Silesian proverb, quoted in one of his books by British linguist David Crystal. I’ve had occasion to mention Professor Crystal already in Bikwil (e.g. in my piece about clichés in Issue 20, July 2000), but if anyone in the language world deserves a Bikwil article to himself it is David Crystal. And what better place to publish it could there be than as part of the Up-front Popularizers series?

Born in 1941, Crystal has become internationally known not only for his research work in English language studies, but also for his application of linguistics in religious and educational situations, together with his promotion of a series of linguistic techniques for diagnostic, clinical and therapeutic uses. These days, he also edits general reference books, including The New Penguin Encyclopaedia and The Cambridge Biographical Dictionary, for example. He also writes poetry and plays.

Although he is the author of hundreds of technical volumes and articles on linguistics, not unexpectedly it is the numerous works on language he has written for what we might call the “literate layperson” (e.g. your typical Bikwil reader) that have earned Crystal his widest renown, and that is why he belongs in Up-front Popularizers. I recently did a check of his Internet popularity by typing “david crystal” into Google. There were over fourteen thousand references. Not bad for a linguist.

I myself own several of his books in this easy-reading category, and I’m going to discuss each of these and hopefully give you some feeling for the sort of subject he addresses and the decidedly effective way in which he does it. Before I do, though, I want to mention a few other reasonably “accessible” works of his that I hope to delve into when time and money permit. Those of you who enjoy my Pink Shell-like stuff might like to look out for mention of some of these in future columns.

Here they are:

A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics
Introduction to Language Pathology (with Rosemary Varley)
Language and the Internet
Language Death
Discover Grammar (with Geoff Barton)
Rediscover Grammar
The Penguin Dictionary of Language

Turning now to the Crystal books I have in my home library, I’ll begin by looking at Words on Words (Hardcover ISBN: 0-14-029134-2), which he wrote in 1999 with his wife Hilary. This is the source of the quote that opens this essay. As the work’s title might have suggested to you, it is a book of quotations about language — the first of its kind, actually.

And what a great collection it is — over 5,000 quotations, “from sources as diverse as Plato and Winnie the Pooh”, as the publisher puts it. There are seven major topics, subdivided into 65 categories:

Analysing Language
Good and Bad Language
Words, Style Genre and Variety
Postscript: Quoting and Misquoting.

While English-language authors strongly predominate, forty other nationalities are also represented. Where relevant, quotations are annotated with a brief description of the context, in order to aid in understanding of the full meaning.

There are three indexes: (a) Authors, (b) Sources and (c) Key Words, Phrases, and Concepts. The Key Words index is larger than that of most quotation books — huge in fact: 245 pages out of the book’s 580. It is designed not only to point us to quotations we might need on a specific topic, but also to help us find a quotation we only half-remember. To take a very simple example of the latter, this quote by Henry Ward Beecher “All words are pegs to hang ideas on” can be found in the Key Words index under words, pegs and ideas.

Here are a few choice quotations that have caught my eye during my many browsings:

The devil himself was learning the Basque language for seven years and then he only learned three words.  (Basque proverb)

It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.   (Oliver Wendell Holmes, snr.)

A sentence may be defined as a group of words, uttered in sequence, but without logical connection, to express an opinion or an emotion. A number of sentences if emitted without interruption becomes a conversation. A conversation prolonged over an hour or more becomes a gossip. A gossip, when shared by several persons, is known as a secret. A secret is anything known by a large and constantly increasing number of persons.  (Christopher Morley)

The circle of the English language has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference.  (James Murray)

Propaganda is that branch of the art of lying which consists in nearly deceiving your friends without quite deceiving your enemies.  (Francis M. Cornford)

Words should be an intense pleasure, just as leather should be to a shoemaker.  (Evelyn Waugh)

The next book of Crystal’s I’d like to look at is English as a Global Language (1997, Hardback ISBN: 0-521-59247-X). Slight in size (150 pages), this book has nevertheless received a great deal of press coverage, perhaps because of its (for some) politically charged subject.

Politically charged?

I have beside me a review of English as a Global Language that was published by Gordon Bilney in The Sydney Morning Herald of 25 July 1998. Drawing on Crystal’s Preface, he pointed out that the genesis of the book was in answer to a request by an organisation called US English whose members feared that English was running the risk of “losing the battle for linguistic supremacy . . . as the sole official language of the U.S.”

Bilney went on to comment how disappointed the US English group would have been when they saw what Crystal had written. For one thing, Crystal is too objective and even-handed for people with a national cleaver to grind. Indeed, there is a section about the “sole official language of the U.S.” debate towards the end of the book, where he concludes that

 . . . in a climate where supporters of official English (no matter how moderate) have come to be routinely labelled 'racist', and immigrants wishing to use their own language (no matter how cultured) are castigated by such names as 'welfare hogs', it is difficult to see the grounds for compromise.

If English doesn’t need the help of an American law to rule the language roost after all, you might like to look in another political direction and speculate what the axe-at-the-ever-ready French think of the hegemony of English. (For a quick hint, look up French in the book’s index.)

The book addresses itself to three basic questions: What makes a world language? Why is English the leading candidate? Will it continue to hold that position?

Crystal maintains that what makes a global language depends primarily on who its speakers are, rather than on how many of them there are, or how easy it is to learn, or the size of its vocabulary, or what great literature has been written in it. “A language becomes an international language for one chief reason: the political power of its people.” This might be military power or it might be economic power. Usually it’s both, supported by communication technologies (in the broadest sense of that term).

Why English, then? Because it was “in the right place at the right time”. Crystal devotes two chapters (the bulk of the book) to the history of growth of English’s dominance. Here is his summary:

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Britain had become the world's leading industrial and trading country. By the end of the century, the population of the USA (then approaching 100 million) was larger than that if any of the countries of Western Europe, and its economy was the most productive and the fast growing in the world. British political imperialism had sent English around the globe, during the nineteenth century, so that it was 'a language on which the sun never sets'. During the twentieth century, this world presence was maintained and promoted, almost single-handedly, through the economic supremacy of the new American superpower, and the language behind the US dollar was English.

The future of English as a (or the) global language, Crystal says, carries with it with some risks. These include widespread concerns that it will “maintain . . . in a linguistic guise the chasm between rich and poor” (linguistic power), that it will encourage people to be even lazier than they already are about learning other languages (linguistic complacency), and that it will make all other languages unnecessary (linguistic death).

It’s now time for us to move on to another of Crystal’s books — The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (1987, Paperback ISBN: 0-521-42443-7).

And what an appealing volume it is — 470 large format pages filled with easy to absorb essays and side-bars on every aspect of language imaginable, illustrated by over 600 maps, diagrams and photographs. And like other works I’m discussing here, it is written in a manner that will attract the beginning linguistics undergraduate and the amateur language student alike. Any technical language used is fully explained.

Here are the major categories Crystal deals with:

Popular Ideas about Language
Language and Identity
The Structure of Language
The Medium of Language: Speaking and Listening
The Medium of Language: Writing and Reading
The Medium of Language: Signing and Seeing
Child Language Acquisition
Language, Brain and Handicap
The Languages of the World
Language in the World
Language and Communication.

A listing like that above may give you an idea of the scope of this book, but it can do little justice to its flavour, so I think I should try to demonstrate it by quotations from some of the articles.

The first is from Chapter 12, Stylistic Identity and Literature, and Crystal is discussing the language of various literary genres:

The creativity poets seek takes many forms. It may involve the invention of totally new linguistic features, as in the neologistic vocabulary of James Joyce, or the typographical design of a poem by e.e. cummings. But it more often takes the form of a fresh use of familiar language, as when John Donne compares himself and his mistress to the legs on a pair of compasses, or T.S. Eliot's Prufrock compares the evening laid out against the sky to 'a patient etherised upon a table'. Above all else, poets fear banality. Whatever the literary era or tradition in which they find themselves, they are concerned to avoid what is linguistically boring or predictable, and to discover ways in which words can come alive, to convey fresh worlds of meaning. T.S. Eliot's phrase vividly captures the essence of their predicament: 'the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings'.

Here is quite a different sort of passage from Chapter 15, The Statistical Structure of Language:

Take a text, in any language, and count the words. Order the words in terms of decreasing frequency. According to statistical prediction, the first 15 words will account for 25% of the text. The first 100 words will account for 60%; and the first 4,000 will account for 97.5%. In short samples, however, considerable variation from these proportions will be found.

The next extract, a somewhat disenchanted one, is from Chapter 18, Dictionaries:

For a book that is viewed with a level of respect normally accorded only to the Bible, it is remarkable how casually dictionary-users treat their dictionaries. When people are asked what factors govern their choice of dictionary, most cite linguistically irrelevant matters, such a price, pictorial content, and size — not in terms of the number of entries, but whether it would fit on a shelf, or in a pocket. Many people expect a dictionary to contain encyclopaedic information about historical events, people, and places. Most admit they have never bothered to read the Preface to their dictionary — the place where the layout and conventions of the book are systematically explained. As a consequence they are unable to say what the various abbreviations and symbols mean, or why they are there. The general conclusion is inescapable: most people who would check out every tiny feature of their new car before buying it are unaware of the power that lies under the bonnet of their dictionary.

A more optimistic feeling pervades the following paragraph from the same chapter:

The 1980s will one day be seen as a watershed in lexicography — the decade in which computer applications began to alter radically the methods and potential of lexicography. Gone are the days of painstaking manual transcription and sorting on paper slips: the future is on disk, in the form of vast lexical databases, continuously updated, that can generate a dictionary of given size and scope in a fraction of the time it used to take. Special programs will become available enabling people to ask the dictionary special questions (such as: 'find all the words that entered the language in 1964' or 'find all words ending in –esse'). Access to large machine-dictionaries will become routine in offices and homes. One day, we shall not look up a word in a dictionary on a shelf but ask our home computer for the information we need. That day is not far off.

I have left the best-known Crystal book, and my favourite, till last — The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (1995, Paperback ISBN: 0-521-59655-6).

This celebrated book offers a unique experience of the English language in all its richness and diversity. Clear and accessible, it abounds with insights into how the language evolved and how it works. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language is the most comprehensive general reference book on the history, structure, and worldwide use of English ever written.  (from the publisher's blurb)

. . . bedazzles . . . with an eye-popping presentation of . . . the mother tongue.  (New York Times)

I have been unable to think of a question this book cannot answer . . . I will risk predicting that Professor Crystal will not be superseded much before the message sent into space on Voyager I . . . receives an answer.  (Times Literary Supplement)

These are extracts from just three of the hundreds of published comments on Crystal’s most famous work. Similar in outward appearance and internal design to the Encyclopedia of Language and with almost the same number of pages, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (CEEL, pronounced “seal”) is likewise a truly remarkable book — both in its scope and in its treatment.

As we did above, let’s examine some of its chapter headings. There are six Parts, subdivided into 24 Chapters (plus Appendices):

The History of English
English Vocabulary
English Grammar
Spoken and Written English
Using English
Learning about English.

You might perhaps be wondering how much overlap there is with the Encyclopedia of Language. Let me reassure you: there’s very little. The approach and writing style are certainly the same, but with one or two rare exceptions that’s as far as overlap goes. One book is general linguistics, the other a study of a particular language.

In his helpful Preface to CEEL, Crystal states his methodology:

I have tried to find a balance between talking about the language and letting the language speak for itself. Most spreads distinguish between an expository overview and detailed examples (largely through the typographic convention of main text vs panels). Then within each spread, I have tried to provide examples of the wonder which can be found when we begin to look carefully at the language. All languages are fascinating, beautiful, full of surprises, moving, awesome, fun. I hope I have succeeded in provoking at least one of these responses on every page. I would be disappointed if, after opening, a reader did not feel to some extent entertained, as well as informed.

(The word spread in that quotation refers to the double-page layout of each sub-topic.)

O.K., does he succeed?

Well, you know what my answer’s going to be, and here are a few extracts to provide some evidence.

From English during the Renaissance, in Chapter 5, Early Modern English:

During the 16th century there was a flood of new publications in English, prompted by a renewed interest in the classical languages and literatures, and in the rapidly developing fields of science, medicine, and the arts. This period, from the time of Caxton until around 1650, was later to be called the 'Renaissance', and it included the Reformation, the discoveries of Copernicus, and the European exploration of Africa and the Americas. The effects of these perspectives on the English language were immediate, far-reaching, and controversial.

From Lexical Creation, in Chapter 9, The Sources of the Lexicon:

Reliable comparative statistics are not yet available, but there does seem to have been a trend towards the increased use of affixes as a means of word-formation in English in the last decade or so. The trend looks set to continue.

- - -

The picture shows a sponsored reading aloud of the whole of The Cambridge Encyclopedia in ten hours by a team of over 300 people at the Ucheldre Centre in Holyhead, N Wales in August 1992. The organizers might have called it Encyclopedia-aid, but they chose Encyclopediathon. By the time the occasion was over, several other novelty lexemes had been coined, including:


It was an honest occasion, in aid of charity, and so fortunately there was no encyclopediagate.

From Naming Fashions, in Chapter 10, Etymology:

Some names are regionally distinctive: Kylie is an Australian name, but it began to become popular in Britain in the late 1980s as a result of the fame of Australian actress and singer, Kylie Minogue (1969 -). The meaning of the name is obscure: it may derive from an Aboriginal word for 'boomerang', or be an adaptation of another names, such as Kyle or Kelly.

From The Articles, in Chapter 16, The Structure of Sentences:

The article is often omitted in idiomatic usage when talking about human institutions and routines, means of transport, periods of time, meals, and illnesses:

go to bed
travel by car
at dawn
in winter
have lunch
caught pneumonia

A common error of non-native learners of English is to introduce an article in those cases where it is impossible or inappropriate, as in *I shall go to the bed now, *I have caught a pneumonia.

Just before we leave The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, I ought to mention the variety exhibited in the splendid illustrative material that is integral to the work’s overall fascination. In addition to the many photographs (including one page of eight photos of people who’ve given their names to eponyms, and another showing six photos of different signatures from the hand of Shakespeare), there is a picture of the organs of speech, a table of letter frequencies in English, loads of newspaper and magazine headlines, word games, comic strips and cartoons galore, street signs, some graffiti, many, many maps (including one showing examples of foreign words borrowed by English), — plus scores and scores more.

So, why is it my favourite Crystal book? Firstly, I have a deep-seated interest in the English language and it continues to satisfy that; secondly, it’s a big book, and thorough; thirdly, it’s eminently browsable. Yes, I dip into this wonderful book often — I just open it at random and start reading.

Look, if you only ever buy one book on the English language, make it this one.

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