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David Crystal

David Crystal’s writings on language are remarkable in their volume, scope, and above all accessibility. You’ll find his titles in most high-street bookshops and you don’t need a degree in linguistics to understand them, he makes the most complex of subjects refreshingly readable. Most recently Crystal has been involved in the Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare – a groundbreaking project that is putting Shakespeare’s work on as it was originally pronounced in the 16th century.

In a career spanning 50 years, he has written over 120 books on a wide variety of topics from the language of texting to speech pathology and from books for children to dictionaries and encyclopaedias. Born in Northern Ireland in 1941, he studied English at UCL in London and is now Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. In the first in a series of articles on those who have influenced Pronunciation Studio’s teachers, we asked him a few questions:

1. Your work is very accessible to those who are not linguists, is this an aspect of your writing that comes naturally or does it take a lot of work to make it so readable?

A difficult question. I suppose I must have some sort of instinct for it, but it does need a lot of work. Anything you’ve seen of mine I’ve read through and revised, I dunno, at least a hundred times. In the interim I get it read by someone representing my intended audience. Hilary (my wife) has always performed sterling service here. When I wrote A Little Book of Language, aimed at young teenagers, I had it read by a 12-year-old – my savagest critic ever! A linguistic background helps enormously (especially in stylistics), as it sensitises me, as a writer, to points of potential reader difficulty. It’s much easier to write in an accessible way if you know what points (of grammar, etc) make stuff inaccessible.

2. In a nutshell – why don’t we just write English in IPA?

You mean for everyday purposes? It would mean that every variation in accent would appear differently, and there would no longer be a standard writing system. With English now a global language, and innumerable accents around the world, it would be a recipe for chaos – a return to the days when accent differences were reflected in spelling (in the early Middle Ages). That’s why standard written English evolved in the first place, after all – to foster mutual intelligibility among people who spoke in different ways. Using IPA (or any spelling reform that was phonetic in character) would also mean that we’d lose some of the visual morphological relationships between words that actually make the language easier to learn, such as telegraph, telegraphy, telegraphic, or the endings of cats, dogs, and horses, or walked, rolled, and wanted, which would all look different in IPA.

3. How accurate is the original pronunciation of Shakespeare & are there any uncertainties about the sounds and intonation that were used?

We’ll never know anything about the intonation, as commentators at the time had nothing to say about it. On the other hand, it’s clear from later studies (such as Joshua Steele’s Melody and Measure of Speech in the 18th century) and from the first audio recordings in the late 19th century, that intonation hasn’t changed much over a long time, so it’s likely that our use of modern intonation, when reading Shakespeare, won’t be too far from how it was in 1600. We are on stronger ground when dealing with segmental phonology, as 16th and 17thy century orthoepists had a lot to say about it, and their evidence, along with the spellings, rhymes, and puns, combine to make it possible, I think, to reconstruct the Early Modern English of Shakespeare’s day with around 90 percent plausibility. There were of course usage variations in pronunciation then just as there are now, and lots of regional variation, and any historical phonologist is always ‘taking a view’ about the likelihood of a word being pronounced one way rather than another. Some parts of the sound system are much easier to work with than others. But, in the end, the result is a reconstruction which is phonologically principled and, in the mouths of actors, phonetically appealing, judging by the enthusiastic reception OP performances have received. I have a dictionary of OP coming out in 2016 (for OUP) in which I present all the evidence and identify all the options.

4. Are you in favour of the current trend to change the English teaching standard to ‘General British’ instead of RP & do you think it will catch on?

I certainly am, and I hope it will. The terminological parallel is of course General American. The trouble with the term RP is that it has accreted hostile reactions because of its long-standing association with the English elite. It’s thought of as ‘posh’, and reflects the way the upper-classes spoke half a century ago. This kind of speech isn’t the norm today. English pronunciation for the majority of educated people has changed a lot in the past fifty years and it’s good to see that change reflected in a new label. The older variety is of course still used by some, and is recognised in the new nomenclature under the name of Conspicuous GB).

5. Which aspect of linguistics are you most often asked about by the media?

Nobody ever asks about linguistics, or hardly ever. But there are many questions about language. In the past decade, I’ve had more questions about electronically mediated communication than any other topic. About text-messaging and Twitter, especially. As yet, pronunciation hasn’t figured largely in the discussions, but this will change as the Internet becomes more audio-visual.


David Crystal has written over a hundred books, we recommend ‘Spell it Out – The Singular Story of English Spelling’ for all those interested in how English has developed into its modern day form, and his autobiography ‘Just a Phrase I’m Going Through’ – the audio book of which is highly recommended and read by the author.