IATEFL 2015 Signature event: A question of language – David Crystal

Yay, I finally get to see David Crystal speak! 

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David is the patron of IATEFL and has written a number of books and articles on the English language. Today, he is going to answer questions – collected via social media in advance of today’s session and any we have later on.

1. Can you tell the Father Christmas story?

Yeah, well you see, I was in Columbia in Bogota. There is a big mountain there and at the top a shrine, and we had gone up there to see around. There is a railway that takes you up and down again. At the top we were queuing to come down, it was a snake queue. As they waited in the queue, a Columbian family with a little boy saw them and said to his parents – it’s Father Christmas! David agreed – what else do you say to a 3 year old queue. The little boy spread the word in the queue and other children started waving and asking questions, about what they could have for Christmas. 🙂

These days in schools he is called Gandalf or Dumbeldore in schools.

2. Apart from carrying around a notebook to write down long words in Wales, do you have any hot tips for linguistic ornithologists?

Yes, you need a NOTEBOOK and PEN/PENCIL. You are always on the look-out for interesting things and there is always one around the corner saying “Hey David, notice me!” and it goes in the book. When David started writing his big book, he had a drawerful of such notebooks. The longest place name in Wales has 57 letters. Welsh doesn’t have the longest place names in the world. In New Zealand, David and his wife passed a signpost which says “Longest place name in the world, 40km” – he could not ignore this. …30km…20…10…5…1.5km and there it is. An 87 letter place name. No postcards, no hot dog stands, just the place name. Talk about understatement. Beautiful, beautiful thing. It means ‘the mountaintop where Tamatea the giant with the big knees, eater of mountains, traveller of land and sea, played the flute to his beloved.’

3. What’s the verb of the noun orientation, is it orient or orientate?

Well, both of course. Both well-represented in the corpus. But orient about 3 times as frequent as orientate. It’s especially the norm across the ponds (USA, Oz etc). Orientating ideas i.e. figurative uses, don’t attract as much criticism as the literal. When in doubt, look at a corpus. Should be one of the background resources of any classroom.

4. Will anyone be using the word ‘whom’ in 50 years?

This is the man to whom I was speaking. This is the man who I was speaking to. It’s a usage that’s been controversial almost since it came into the language as it was associated with formal usage. It became controversial when in the 18th century it got into prescriptive grammars. ->Don’t end sentences with prepositions… It went in as a rule. You should always say whom and never who in such circumstances. The opposition to that rule was there from the beginning. People noticed it was a silly rule because English had always ended sentences with prepositions, even Shakespeare does. 18th Century grammars responded, “well there you are you see, even Shakespeare gets it wrong. So to avoid these mistakes, use my grammar and follow my rules” ! It has built up into a psychologically charged usage. If you read books by pundits on correct English, you will find whom mentioned. It has become a flag, a symbol, an imagined notion of correct usage. And that is going to keep it alive. Both are valuable – we need formal and informal language. The fact that there is the contrast there plus the psychologically charged value mean it should be around in 50 years.

5. It seems that English speakers have dropped the present perfect in some uses e.g. just in US English. Does this trend apply to other uses and how grammatically acceptable is it?

There has been a shift in the last few decades. The important point is, English speakers have dropped the present perfect in some cases. E.g. I already went instead of I’ve already gone. I just ate instead I’ve just eaten. The common factor is the adverb. Just, already, yet. These are the contexts in which US English differs from UK English. When there are no adverbs there, US manage quite well with the present perfect. The adverbs carry the time reference and this motivates the shift. They are very important. I go to town is just the present tense, I go to town three days a week. Three days a week gives the habitual. Shifts in use might elbow their way into an acceptability matrix due to how much it happens.

6. Do you predict any change in English grammar in the near future due to the impact of social media?

No. Absolutely not. Well, it’s too soon to say, but certainly not in the near future. When the internet arrived, the prophets of doom made these kind of predictions which didn’t turn out to be true. Remember there was no internet before 1991. Google 1999. Text messaging 2000. Chatrooms, 1990s. Facebook 2004. Youtube 2005. Twitter 2006. It’s all very recent. But it takes time to influence grammar. Vocabulary and pronunciation can change quite quickly but grammar, no. It takes time. Remember when the internet came along, everyone thought it was the coolest thing ever. Free information. It’s a lovely world. In the 1990s, they wanted to show people how cool they were, by inventing a new plural ending. For these guys, add a ‘z’. So if you download films, they are legal. If you download filmz, then they are pirated. Tunes, legal. Tunez, pirated. So ‘s’ and ‘z’ became a new plural ending for a while, but then copyright came along, and usage died out largely. That’s the only example David knows and it didn’t last very long. So not going to happen in the near future.

7. In many languages in my part of the world, we say there are six tastes but in English only 5. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, hot. Is there a word to refer to the taste of a raw banana?

Of course! Bananaish or Banana- like. That’s the beauty of English. -like and -ish endings mean you can talk about anything you like in a fuzzy sort of way. English has more words for taste than you might think. How do you find out? Well, this is what David did. He went to the OED to the historical part of the thesaurus. It traces the history of vocabulary in English in terms of clusters of words that relate to a particular theme. So what words were there available for Shakespeare to talk about weather or vehicles? You can find out. David looked for taste. You can find dozens. Savoury, nutty, spicy, picant, unctuous, rancid, zesty, sugary… the vocabulary of English isn’t as denuded as taste terms as you might think.

What do you call your beloved now? Darling, sweetie, honey. In the middle ages, you would use names of fish. E.g. Prawn. Oh my prawn, I love you so much. Shakespearean, “ladybird” – in Romeo and Juliet.

8. Does Cockney slang count as a dialect? And do you have it in your repertoire?

It’s a dialect, yes. Rhyming slang is a lexical feature of that dialect. Accent is pronunciation, dialect is local vocabulary and grammar, with vocabulary as the dominant. No, it’s not in David’s repertoire, though he has studied it. Rhyming slang still exists e.g. “plates of meat” – feet. A rhyming phrase that relates to a particular word in the language. It was originally a kind of criminal slang. Still developing: I forgot my Barack Obamas – my pyjamas.

9. An article in the Washington Post entitles on English majors wanted focuses on the decline in English majors in the US. Computer majors have soared. Why should people invest time and money on an in-depth study of English?

David doesn’t see an opposition between the two. Whatever the language you are studying, computer guys need to know it to face the problems that come up. E.g. refining the nature of searches means an in-depth understanding of language will help you. Also, you won’t get your advertisements right. E.g. There was a story about a street stabbing in Chicago. The ads down the sides were trying to sell knives. Buy your knives here. Cheap knives on EBay etc. Everyone was embarrassed. They asked David to solve it. It’s obvious what’s gone wrong: the stupid software (not English sophisticated) had found the word knife, looked in the advertising for the word knife, found it and there it was. For us, knife as a weapon is different from knife as cutlery. Different collocations too. So the analysis needs to include the collocates. Murder and police, you usually don’t get in a cutlery context. A little bit extra awareness of language can help solve a problem. Now multiply that by all the pages on the internet… 4/5ths of the words in English are polysemic and therefore could give rise to the knife situation. Anybody in the internet and advertisement world needs this kind of awareness to avoid trouble.

10. With the increasing presence of English in an environment/region where it is not L1, futurologists have predicted the extinction of other languages, what do you think? 

There are two main reasons for using language. One is for being intelligible, promotes the use of a standard language, the other main use is to express identity, so we have different languages, accents, dialects. Any international language that becomes seriously global always comes with a risk to minority languages, as it is the language of power and communication, it is dominant. But, do you want to lose your identity? No, not at all. And the best way to maintain that identity is maintaining local language, dialect and accent. If I want to show you I am from Wales, I could wear a big badge, or a big hat or I could play a harp. But there problems with these – you can’t see them in the dark or around a corner. How do you express your identity in the dark or around a corner? Speech. Speech reaches everywhere, which other forms of identity don’t have. So there is a strong force pushing for survival of languages. But it’s a problem alright, in the course of this century, unless something happens, 1/2 the languages in the world will die out. Not necessarily because of English – whatever the dominant language is, e.g. Spanish and Portuguese in South America.

People are already beginning to talk about an English family of languages. In 50 or 100 years time, yes, there will be mutually unintelligible varieties of English. There already are. E.g. Singlish. Somebody coming in from outside doesn’t understand what’s going on. Over 100 years shifts could become grammatical as well as vocabulary/pronunciation. This is language for identity. Standard English won’t die out, language for communication. We will just become diglossic. Learn standard English for international purposes, and a local dialect for other purposes.

11. With the rise of EFL, what are your thoughts on dropping native speaker and referring simply to variants of English?

David only uses it in a biological context not a linguistic context. There has always been variety – accents, dialects. This has increased enormously, because of the enormous immigration into Britain, has produced lots of diversity, and globally. Recognising this has an impact on everything we do. The fact that there is now so much “non-native” variation is simply a natural development similar to the diversity amongst people in the biological native context. People are all just speakers or writers on youtube, for example. There is a blurring of distinctions. Think of the couple who speak English as their mutual language, EFL, have a child, and speak to that child in English, then that child is a native speaker of EFL. At the end of the day, teaching knowledge is the important thing, in a teaching context. Pillow talk and nursery rhymes are the most difficult things for “non-native speakers”, according to a Swedish friend of David’s. No corpus of it – an IATEFL potential project? Watch out for microphones appearing between you in bed… 😉

12. To what extent do you think the use of English in pop music is just a fad? Or valid evidence of the spread of English?

Pop music drives the language around the world of young people at least and perhaps slightly older people too. David thinks there might be a Pop Music SIG one day…it’s already there in the Media SIG or Literature SIG.

13 <I took a finger break! This typing malarkey is not as effortless as you might think! Especially on Day 5...>

14. Now that more than the majority of English communication is between L2-L2, how will we teach?

One must become more aware of different varieties of English, when teaching listening. It is much easier these days thanks to the audio side of the internet. Do you know the website called IDEA? The International Dialects of English Archive. It is based in Kansas. The aim is to collect good quality examples of all dialects of English. There are over 1000 already. Or you can visit David’s site http://www.yousaypotato.net and you can listen to all the recordings of people saying potato that exist already. You can record yourself too, so can your students. What we need is the expectation that variety and divergence is the norm.

15. What about the plural ‘they’? (audience question)

Our pronoun system doesn’t allow an alternative. So we are stuck with using a plural to refer to a singular. Not the first time that singular and plural have come together e.g. plural you and singular you. English pronouns rely on context to distinguish between singular and plural. But the 18th century guys took against it, so we have a problem: People will criticise its use in circumstances where you should be adhering to traditional notions of correctness. To avoid criticism in EAP, avoid using it. If you don’t mind criticism, then fine. David avoids it in radio programmes so that people should focus on the message not the grammatical point. Socio-linguistically is where the problem is.

16. <finger break mixed with getting lost due to tired fingers>

17. Would you mind doing the rap song?

The context for this was that somebody asked me what trends are affecting pronunciation around the world. The change from stress-timed to syllable-timed.

<little video clip of David rapping will be uploaded when I get a net connection that permits!>

And that, sadly, brought us to the end of a fascinating hour and 20 minutes! Glad to finally have seen David Crystal talking, as awesome as expected! A great end to the conference for me. 

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One thought on “IATEFL 2015 Signature event: A question of language – David Crystal

  1. Pingback: IATEFL 2015: All my posts indexed! | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

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